It’s the “mother of all emergencies,” as we vets like to say—the dreaded bloat, otherwise known as “gastric dilatation volvulus” or GDV. Fancy acronyms notwithstanding, this condition is as poorly understood as it is deadly. That’s why it’s worth re-hashing bloat’s gruesome details every so often. After all, science marches on, as does this emergency’s apparent inevitability and evasiveness. Here’s a quick rundown on what we do know:
• With bloat, the stomach twists, then fills with gas—or is it vice versa? Either way, the emergency comes in when the blood vessels that supply the stomach are pinched off. That’s when the organ starts to die, shock sets in and deadly cardiac rhythms can occur.
• The most common symptoms are non-productive retching and abdominal distension (though a big belly can be hard to identify in some breeds). Dogs may act restless or be lethargic. But nausea— typically evident with salivation and/or disinterest in food—is always severe and unrelenting.
• Bloat is a highly treatable condition, regardless of what you may have heard. In fact, depending on the studies you choose to consume, survival with treatment ranges anywhere from 67 to 85 percent.
• The key to successful treatment seems most unquestionably to lie in rapid identification of the condition. If an animal’s symptoms are identified, rapid transport ensues and treatment is initiated all within an approximately five- to six-hour window, survival rates are significantly higher.
• Large and giant-breed dogs are most definitely predisposed to it. In fact, one study claims that dogs weighing in at 99 pounds or more have a 20 percent risk of bloating at some point in their lives. Another recent study confirms that risk increases with age, and again if siblings or parents have been affected.Nonetheless, we also know that any dog of any parentage and any breed may suffer bloat at any time.
• Dogs who eat rapidly or from raised food bowls seem to suffer an increased risk of bloat (Glickman, et al. JAVMA 2000, 217:10). Feeding from food bowls designed to limit eating speed—commercially available everywhere—and getting rid of that raised feeding stand can help.
• We also understand that bloat is within our capacity to prevent—to a large extent—should we recognize a dog’s risk profile and choose to undertake a relatively simple abdominal procedure called a gastropexy (surgery in which the stomach is “tacked” to the body wall). This procedure is an elective, routine one aimed at preventing bloat from progressing to a critical stage—in advance of an episode. It may not stop the stomach from filling with gas, but it does tend to keep it from twisting. Studies reveal that this approach, undertaken laparoscopically and/or at the same time as another routine abdominal procedure (such as a spay), can definitely help prevent bloat-related mortality.
And here’s where things start to get fuzzy. What about all those feeding recommendations and body conformation studies you may have heard about? If your breed isn’t deep-chested, do you really need to worry? Is feeding twice a day still the done thing? Should you worry about the size of the kibble or your dog’s stress levels? Not all studies come to the same conclusions on all these risk factors for GDV, and some individual researchers have even encountered contradictory evidence on subsequent studies.
Or maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. In which case, here’s the deal: Bloat in dogs has been researched ad nauseum (pardon the pun), and still we don’t have a reasonable understanding of what leads some to bloat and some to remain GDV–free.
Despite our collective veterinary ignorance, we have identified a few choice predisposing factors that may influence bloat’s onset. Apart from the more concrete findings listed above, veterinary medicine’s bloat risk watchlist currently includes dogs who…
• have a deep chest rather than a “barrel” chest (think Doberman, not Bullmastiff);
• have an aggressive or fearful temperament;
• exercise immediately after feeding;
• are fed only one meal daily;
• get small-sized kibble over the chunkier kind;
• are overly stressed; and
• are especially lean.
However—and this is a big however —these issues have yet to be conclusively proven as GDV risks.
Then there’s the contentious issue of breed predisposition to consider, for which risk assessments invariably list large and giant breeds at the top.While the breeds themselves may vary and disputes arise when it comes to whether X breed beats Y on the bloat-meter, some breeds always seem to prevail: namely, Great Danes, Saint Bernards and Weimaraners.
Knowing all this, it’s now your job to eliminate the predisposing factors you can (feed from the ground and slow down speedy eaters), know what bloat looks like (retching and abdominal distension), treat it like the “mother of all emergencies” it is (get thee to the vet fast), and decline to preemptively “tack” large- and giant-breed dogs at your own risk.
Editor’s Note: Starting in the mid-1990s, Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine’s Canine Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus Research Program began collecting and studying a range of data; read more about the research and its conclusions at vet.purdue.edu/epi/bloat.htm .
Doberman photo: James Brey; Stomach diagram: Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook