Though not a household name, bloat remains among the greatest health threats to large dogs
By Andrew Clayman
Despite numerous studies and years of meticulous analysis, there remains no canine condition as mysterious or alarmingly lethal as gastric dilatation-volvulus, or bloat.
Second only to cancer as a killer of dogs, bloat occurs primarily in large, deep-chested breeds, such as Great Danes, St. Bernards, German Shepherds, Irish Setters, Dobermans, and Bloodhounds. While dogs of all sizes can suffer from mild, relatively harmless gastric distention or bloating of the stomach, it’s these larger breeds (particularly older males) that are most susceptible to the onset of the more serious state of “volvulus” or “torsion,” during which the stomach will flip over inside the abdomen wall.
“When a breed has a deep chest and a long rib cage, they have more room for their stomach to be pendulous inside their abdomen,” explains Dr. Dan Meakin, a veterinarian at All Creatures Animal Hospital in Amelia, Ohio. “If a dog eats and drinks a lot, and then their stomach gets halfway full with food and water, and halfway full with air from exercise—it can become pendulous and flip just like a half-filled water balloon.”
The consequences of this flipping or twisting of the stomach are immediate and can be severe.
“It cuts off the blood supply to the heart,” Meakin says. “The dogs will go into shock almost instantly. But also, the esophagus turns, so there is no way for them to regurgitate or belch, and their stomach just starts filling with air.”
At this stage, a bloating dog will almost always begin to exhibit certain physical and behavioral warning signs with which all large-breed caretakers should familiarize themselves.
“Usually, you will see their stomach descending,” says Dr. Lynn Myers of the Doylestown Animal Medical Clinic in Pennsylvania. “They might be gagging, retching, trying to vomit, but not producing anything. And they will typically become very lethargic. If there’s any doubt in your mind, you should definitely seek a veterinarian. It’s an emergency.”
“Absolutely,” Meakin agrees, “You should go to a veterinarian immediately. There’s nothing you can do at home. You can’t walk them through it or turn them on their back. You’re just wasting time. We’ve had a dog die within 30 minutes of showing the first signs.”
Without question, one of the most brutal characteristics of bloat is the suddenness with which it appears and the short amount of time it needs to bring about a tragedy. For this reason, much of the emphasis on fighting the condition has centered on the area of prevention. Of course, to know how to prevent something, you must first know what causes it. For many years, the accepted theory has been that bloat occurs as a result of deep-chested dogs engaging in exercise shortly after eating a large meal. However, even the best theories can be hard to substantiate in every case, and this one is no exception.
“I’ve been a Great Dane veterinarian for ten years, so I have a lot of experience with bloat,” Meakin says. “But in reality, during that time, I have not always been able to associate it directly with exercise and a big meal.”
“There’s a lot of old wives’ tales out there that say if you do this, that, or the other thing, your dog won’t bloat,” Myers adds. “I think at one point, they were telling people to feed from an elevation, and, in fact, that is probably more likely to cause dogs to bloat. Basically, feeding smaller meals, not letting a dog run after eating—those things are always helpful in trying to prevent it. But there are a lot of dogs that bloat just as a result of stress or for reasons we can’t even determine.”
In recent years, many vets and scientists have even begun identifying bloat as a possible genetic disorder, but this does not mean that there aren’t ways to actively prevent the event in vulnerable breeds.
One effective and increasingly popular surgical solution is called gastropexy. This procedure can be done on a spayed or neutered dog before he ever shows signs of bloating, and it is highly recommended for any dog that has already survived one run-in with gastric dilatation-volvulus.
“With a gastropexy, we suture or tack the dog’s actual stomach to the walls of her abdomen,” Myers says. “So she can still bloat, but the stomach won’t twist. If they bloat, and it doesn’t twist, you can actually pass a tube and release the bloat.”
Meakin performs the same procedure on many large breeds, but he hesitates to recommend it in all instances.
“It stands to reason that [prophylactic tacking] could be a little uncomfortable for some dogs,” he explains. “But they all seem to do well with it.”
In the end, whether one chooses a preemptive surgery or a change in feeding and exercise regimens, the best advice is always the same: Know your dog, and take action if something seems wrong. It could mean the difference between life and death.