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Bloat! A Life Threatening Emergency!

Bloat is a complicated and severe disease that strikes large and giant breed dogs primarily. Bloat is one of the most frightening and urgent veterinary emergencies. The anatomy of a deep-chested dog, such as a Great Dane, seems to make it susceptible to bloat. Bloat is the filling of the gastrointestinal tract, especially the stomach, with gas or air. It is not the filling of the stomach with food, as many people seem to think. Once the stomach fills with air, it is prone to twisting along its axis. This syndrome is called gastrodilatation and volvulus or GDV. This is a life-threatening condition and requires immediate emergency medical and surgical intervention.

There have been numerous scientific studies of bloat, not because of its frequency, but its severity. Up to 30% of dogs that have GDV will die, even with appropriate veterinary care. Any dog that is not treated will die. The causes of bloat are very controversial. The only cause that has not been argued is the anatomy of the affected dogs. Deep-chested dogs have a deeper cranial abdominal cavity (where the stomach resides). The stomach has more room to fill with air and also more room to flip once it is filled. There are very few, if any, dietary factors that have been scientifically proven to be causes of bloat.

Anecdotal support of certain causes of bloat has caused us to make recommendations and often rescind those same recommendations later. For example, it was once thought that dogs susceptible to bloat should be fed on an elevated surface. Soon after this recommendation came out, one study showed that this may help contribute to bloat so it was no longer recommended to feed these dogs like this. Also, wetting the food prior to feeding was thought to help prevent bloating. Now, feeding dry kibble without wetting it is recommended, especially if the food contains citric acid as a preservative.

Things that have support as being causes of bloat are rapid gulping of the food (because much air is swallowed during eating), exercise right before eating, and exercise right after eating.

When treating a case of bloat (without volvulus), a stomach tube is passed through the mouth, down the esophagus, and into the stomach. Through a siphoning effect, air and liquid are evacuated from the bloated stomach. When volvulus has occurred, the tube can’t penetrate from the esophagus into the stomach. Radiographs (x-rays) are used to diagnose a bloat versus a GDV. Surgery is required to repair a GDV. Sometimes, the twisting of the stomach causes damage to part of the stomach or to the spleen. If the blood supply has been constricted for too long, part of the stomach and the entire spleen may need to be removed. Part of the surgery involves attaching the stomach to the body wall so that if the dog bloats again, the stomach can’t twist. Some dogs even have surgery before they ever have an incidence of bloat to help prevent GDV from ever occurring, this is called prophylactic gastropexy.

If you own a large or giant breed dog, you should be familiar with bloat and should always have emergency contact numbers for your veterinarian available. If you notice that your dog’s abdomen looks stretched and swollen and he is retching without vomiting, contact your veterinarian immediately. Bloat is a true emergency situation and there is very little time once you first notice the symptoms.  

Please note that this information does not replace professional veterinary care. It is solely for educational purposes. Your pet's medical condition should be evaluated by a veterinarian before any medical decisions are implemented. If there is a potentially life-threatening emergency involving your pet, take your pet to a veterinarian or veterinary facility immediately.

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