The image of a full, rounded belly after a big meal – a "food baby" – may look funny on paper. But it is not funny at all if you see it in your dog.
While bloat doesn’t always indicate a serious medical condition, stomach bloating in dogs can turn into a life-threatening condition called gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV).
In this condition, the dog's stomach becomes distended, or stretched, due to gas, food, or liquid. As the condition gets worse, the stomach can actually twist and this condition is fatal if left untreated. Unfortunately, this painful condition can go from mild to fatal within only a couple of hours. If you see that your dog's stomach is bloated, it is an emergency and you need to get your dog to a vet immediately.
In this post, we’ll define GDV, explain symptoms and signs you should be on the lookout for, and explain causes and treatment options.
Defining Stomach Bloat: What Is Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus?
There's stomach bloat, and then there's GDV - while these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they are very different conditions. Simple stomach bloat or distension is when the dog's abdomen looks distended or bloated, but the dog can still do things like burp and vomit.
GDV, on the other hand, is more severe. When the dog's stomach twists, it twists the entrance and exit to the stomach. Gas, food, or whatever else is in there can't get out. The bloating worsens, and the increasing size of the stomach makes it press against veins and arteries, as well as other organs. This causes pain and prevents blood from flowing to other parts of the body, including your dog’s limbs.
The pressure caused by the expanding gas inside the stomach also wreaks havoc on the dog's stomach lining. The pressure can be so great that the tissue is crushed, and the cells in the tissue die.
To be clear, this article focuses on GDV and not simple bloat.
Clinical Signs of Bloating (GDV) in Dogs
Because GDV progresses so quickly, you need to be familiar with symptoms of bloat in dogs, especially early on. Look for restlessness and possibly pacing, as the dog tries to deal with the growing discomfort. You may see the abdominal area look more and more swollen (or distended), and if you touch it, the pet may whine in pain. Even if your pet doesn't seem painful, please contact your vet immediately if you notice abnormal behavior or signs of distress..
If the pet starts to try to vomit and just retches, unable to actually vomit or even burp, that's a sign torsion or twisting has occurred.The inability to vomit is caused by the entrance and exit to the stomach having been cut off through that twisting. The dog might start drooling a lot (if your dog already has a tendency to drool, don't brush off the drool as normal if you see other symptoms of GDV) and breathing or panting very hard.
If the pet collapses or can't stand up on all fours, the condition is now in a severe stage. Call your vet immediately.
Causes of Stomach Bloat (GDV) in Dogs
Unfortunately, the specific cause of GDV still isn't fully known. Researchers have found connected risk factors1, however, and some of these may offer a way to reduce the dog's risk of developing the condition.
Dog breeds that are large and "deep-chested" are most at risk. The Great Dane has the highest risk of all breeds, followed by breeds like the Akita, Irish wolfhound, Irish setter, German shepherd, Bloodhound, standard Poodle, and the Boxer.
Build and Weight
The larger the dog, the more likely they are to have a high risk of developing GDV, especially if their chest cavity is narrow but deep. The leaner the dog, believe it or not, the higher the risk; it's possible the lack of abdominal fat makes it easier for the stomach to swell.
Age appears to be a major factor. In fact, for large dogs, the risk of developing GDV goes up by 20 percent every year after age 5. For giant dog breeds, the risk goes up every year after age 3. But remember, this applies to risk only. Younger dogs can still develop GDV, as can smaller and fatter dogs.
Some genetic links do appear to be active in terms of which dogs develop GDV. Studies have identified genetic markers, some of which are protective and some of which are the opposite, but the full story isn't yet known. It's likely safe to assume that a dog from a litter where a litter-mate or parent had GDV may be at greater risk, too. It is known that male dogs are more likely to develop GDV than female dogs.
Speed of Eating
Dogs that eat very fast may be at more risk because of the air they tend to ingest as they chow down. You can slow how fast your dog eats through a number of methods. These include placing a ball or rock in the center of the food dish (so the dog has to eat around the obstacle, which takes longer), using a dish designed to slow eating speed, or even feeding the dog out of smaller containers like muffin tins. Also keep meals small; give the dog two or three smaller meals (at least two!) and avoid giving the dog one big meal for the day. Not only will that keep the amount of food in the dog's stomach on the smaller side, but the dog will be less ravenous.
Raised Food Bowls
Raised or elevated food bowls seem like they would be very helpful for preventing pain in the dog's neck and shoulders, and long ago they were actually recommended as a way to reduce the amount of air the dog would ingest while eating. That was supposed to reduce the risk of bloat. However, it's now apparent that elevated food bowls might do the opposite and actually raise the risk of bloat. If your dog has risk factors for GDV, don't use elevated bowls.
Treating Bloat in Dogs
Bloat, especially when twisting has happened, is really only treatable through surgery and veterinary intervention. If you think your dog has symptoms of bloat or GDV, call your vet immediately. Don't wait for symptoms to worsen.
Dog With a Bloated Stomach: Frequently Asked Questions
Why is my dog's belly bloated?
If your dog is bloated, something has caused gas, food, or liquid to build up in your dog's stomach. If the condition is GDV, the dog is at risk of having its stomach rotate on its long axis, twisting it shut and allowing the gas or other substance to keep growing and making the bloat worsen. .
What does a bloated stomach feel like in a dog?
Be careful touching a bloated stomach on a dog as it can be very painful. If you do touch your dog’s stomach, it might feel tense and very firm.
Should I be worried if my dog is bloated?
Yes, absolutely. Get the dog to a vet as quickly as you can.
How long can dogs survive with bloat?
If the bloat is due to GDV, your dog may have only a couple of hours before the condition turns fatal. There's no set time, however, so you need to assume that you have to act now and not wait to see how things go. Simple bloat is different, but you may not be able to tell the difference. Treat any bloating as if it were GDV.
GDV is a terrible condition that is terrifying for both you and your dog. Learn the signs of bloat in dogs so you can get your dog to a vet as fast as possible. That speed can easily be the difference between the dog living and dying. If you need to speak to a vet now about a dog with a bloated stomach and can't reach yours, contact or take your pet to an emergency hospital immediately.