Knowing the symptoms of bloat in dogs is important for every dog owner. And as my nephew, Tucker, found out, so is trusting your gut when you feel like something isn’t right with your dog.
Tucker & Wyatt’s Story: Out of the Blue
Tucker had an 8 year old Bernese mountain dog named Wyatt. He adopted him when Wyatt was 1, and over the next 7 years they became inseparable, hiking daily in the Montana mountains.
Wyatt became the favorite of Tucker’s many piano students, greeting them each week as they arrived for their lesson, then settling down near the piano for a snooze. He ate a healthy raw diet and hiked daily – he was the picture of perfect health.
June 29, 2019, started as a normal day. Tucker fed Wyatt his breakfast and headed into town to teach piano lessons. After lessons, as they headed to the car, Wyatt lay down on the way out the door, which was very unusual.
They headed home, and after lunch Tucker took Wyatt for a walk near their mountain home. Halfway through the walk Wyatt sat down and didn’t want to continue.
Remembering Wyatt’s unusual behavior after lessons, Tucker became more concerned. He approached Wyatt and immediately felt his belly, wanting to rule out anything like bloat. He didn’t feel much bloating or tightness, the stomach felt full but not tight.
For some reason that Tucker couldn’t put his finger on, he had a gut feeling that something was wrong. He checked Wyatt’s gums, noting they weren’t as bright pink as usual. Not grey (a cause for alarm) but were they a little less pink?
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of bloat in dogs can be a matter of life and death. Bloat, also known as gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV), is a condition that is deadly if not treated quickly by a veterinarian.
Knowing what bloat is and learning to recognize its clinical signs early is important for all dog owners. Catching bloat in the early stages increases your dog’s chances for successful treatment before it progresses to irreversible and fatal whole body shock.
Important Disclaimer: I am not a vet. Not even close. I’m just sharing my own personal experience and information I have read. If you think you want to try something you read about here, talk to your vet! But first read this and many more articles to empower yourself for a good discussion in which you can ask your vet great questions about what you want to try.
Knowledge is power – never forget that!
What is Bloat in Dogs?
Canine bloat is a deadly condition. I did not find any recorded statistics on the internet about how common bloat is in dogs, but various articles stated it kills from 20,000 to as many as 60,000 dogs each year.
Every minute counts if you think your dog is experiencing bloat; about 1/3 of dogs with this condition die before they can receive medical treatment.
It is known to be more common in large breeds, but it can happen to any breed. So signs of bloat must never be ignored, no matter what size or breed your dog is.
There are two distinct stages of bloating in dogs.
- Gastric dilatation: The stomach dilates (bloats) from the presence of food and/or gas.
- Volvulus (torsion): The distended stomach twists. This twisted stomach closes off the entry and exit into the stomach so the gas cannot escape.
Once the stomach twists the blood supply is cut off, causing stomach tissue to die off. The stomach continues to enlarge, putting pressure on the dog’s diaphragm and making it hard for them to breathe. It also starts to press on blood vessels that lead to the heart, slowing circulation, causing cardiac arrhythmia, and sending the dog into shock.
Once the stomach has twisted, emergency surgery is the only way to untwist the stomach back to its normal position and to evaluate the extent of tissue damage and if the dog has a chance of surviving.
You don’t have long to get your dog to a vet so every minute is crucial.
What Causes Bloat in Dogs
There are many theories about what causes bloat in dogs. Possible contributors include:
- Dog has a close relative that experienced GDV
A study done by Purdue University about non-dietary risk factors for gastric dilatation-volvulus followed over 1600 dogs and kept track of bloat causes. One of their observations stood out to me.
This study showed a 20% increase in risk for each year increase in age, and study author Dr. L.T. Glickman hypothesized it may be related to “increased weakness, over time, in the ligaments holding the stomach in place.”
This hypothesis was in direct agreement with an article about stomach bloat in dogs by Dr. Peter Dobias in which he discusses weakened stomach muscles from lack of roughage (meat, meaty bones) in conventional dog food. More on this in the prevention section below.
What Breeds are at High Risk of Bloat?
It’s common knowledge that larger breeds and deep-chested dogs have a higher risk of developing bloat. I debated listing the most common breeds, but I decided not to for two important reasons.
First, ANY dog can get bloat. So whether you have a big dog or a small dog, you need to know the symptoms and know the importance of getting your dog immediate veterinary care if you notice them.
Second, there was too much variation in the breed lists that I found. There doesn’t seem to be a benefit of listing them, only a negative effect of possibly giving someone a false sense of security if their dog’s breed isn’t on the list.
If you got your dog from a breeder, it is definitely worth asking the breeder if any close relative of your dog has experienced bloat. If they have you will need to be extra vigilant.
Symptoms of Bloat in Dogs
The signs of bloat in dogs can come on very fast. Many times bloat starts after a dog eats. When bloat occurs you may see:
- Unsuccessful attempts to vomit (nothing coming up)
- Agitation and distress (panting, whining, or pacing)
- Bloated abdomen, feels hard or taut to the touch
- Repeated turning to look at abdomen
- Stretching with front end down and back end up
- Shaking or shivering
- Signs of abdominal discomfort or pain
- Pale gums
- Uncomfortable/stiff movement
- Head hanging
- Collapsing or losing consciousness
- Owner has a gut feeling that something just isn’t right
I bolded the last one – always, always trust your gut. If you feel like something isn’t right, you need to trust that feeling.
When my nephew’s dog had bloat, the first thing he reported when asked how he knew something was wrong, was that something didn’t seem right. No specific thing – his uncomfortable gut feeling was the first sign that something was up with his dog.
He listened to that gut feel, which bought him valuable time getting his dog to the vet.
Tucker & Wyatt: Getting to the vet
Trusting his gut, Tucker turned and headed to his car with Wyatt, calling his vet and alerting her that he was bringing Wyatt in to be sure nothing serious was happening.
Upon arriving at the vet clinic Tucker took Wyatt in to be examined. The vet agreed the abdomen didn’t feel overly swollen, but agreed Wyatt’s gums were slightly pale and was concerned that perhaps a tumor had ruptured.
She took Wyatt from the room to take x-rays and do an ultrasound to determine what was happening.
Treatment of Bloat in Dogs
Every aspect of how to treat bloat in dogs involves getting them to a vet – immediately!
Here is what will happen once you get to the vet with a dog experiencing bloat:
- Release pressure buildup of gas and air in the stomach either with a syringe through the abdominal wall or a gastric tube through the mouth or nose (depending on if twisting has occurred).
- Insert IV to restore blood circulation, help reverse shock, deliver medications, antibiotics, and painkillers.
- Take x-rays to determine if stomach is twisted
- Perform surgery to untwist the stomach and put it back into proper position, and possibly do a procedure called “preventive gastropexy” in which the stomach is “tacked” to the abdominal wall or rib cage to prevent recurrence.
During surgery, the vet will assess damage done to the stomach, spleen, and other organs in the body. If the damage is too severe, the dog has to be euthanized.
How Much Does Dog Bloat Surgery Cost?
Surgical cost varies based on size of dog, extent of damage that has occurred, and organs involved (sometimes a splenectomy is required if the spleen is too damaged and needs to be removed). Stories I read ranged from $3,000 – $6,000.
Tucker & Wyatt: Sad News
When the vet came back into the room, the news was worse than Tucker’s worst nightmare. First, the x-ray showed Wyatt was indeed suffering from bloat and his stomach had twisted shut. But Tucker had caught it in time.
Had it been the only thing she saw on the x-ray, surgical correction most likely would have saved Wyatt’s life.
But then came the shocking news. The vet gently told Tucker that the x-ray also showed cancer throughout Wyatt’s lungs, one lung completely full.
If Wyatt survived the surgery, he would soon die from lung cancer.
She said they could possibly try removing the lung that was full, but the cost would be over $8000 and she wouldn’t recommend doing it.
Tucker had to make a horrible decision. His dog was 8, the high end of the average life expectancy for a Bernese mountain dog, and he had incurable lung cancer. If Tucker proceeded with the bloat surgery, Wyatt most likely would barely survive the recovery before dying from lung cancer.
But because Wyatt had bloat, Tucker couldn’t enjoy a final few weeks with his dog.
The vet used a needle to let air and gas out of Wyatt’s stomach and gave him pain medication to make him comfortable, buying Tucker time to sit with Wyatt and tell him goodbye.
Tucker had done everything right, but in a horrible twist of fate he still had to hold his dog’s face in his hands, tell him how incredibly much he loved him and would miss him, and say goodbye.
How to Prevent Bloat in Dogs
Before we talk about preventing bloat in dogs, there is an important point every dog owner should understand:
There is nothing you can do to ensure 100% that your dog won’t get bloat.
You can do things that reduce the chances – and that’s important!
One common recommendation is to feed your dog several smaller meals each day instead of one or two large meals. This would logically reduce chances of gas and possibly less wolfing down of food.
Some articles recommend slowing down the rate your dogs eat so they don’t “wolf down” their food. If your dog tends to inhale their food, look into getting one of these slow feeder toys for dogs.
The most interesting theory I read was in Dr. Peter Dobias’s article stomach bloat in dogs. Dr. Dobias states that as a dog ages, the stomach muscles become weaker.
When a dog is fed kibble, the muscles don’t need to work as hard as they would if the dog food contained natural roughage or raw bones and meat. This weakened stomach is more predisposed to gastric dilation.
For this reason (and many others) Dr. Dobias recommends a diet with real food roughage, raw bones, and meat.
Observations by Dr. Alicia Faggella support this recommendation . In an interview in a Whole Dog Journal article about dog bloat causes she states that when in Australia she “didn’t see bloat as commonly there [as compared to the US],” adding that they feed differently there with fewer prepared diets and more raw meat and bones, which may contribute to the lower incidence of GDV.
There were a few recommendations that numerous articles warned not to do as they could increase the risk that bloat will occur.
The first was do not raise the food dishes. The Purdue study of risk factors for gastric dilatation-volvulus found that “approximately 20 and 52% of cases of GDV among the large breed and giant breed dogs, respectively, were attributed to having a raised feed bowl.”
The second is do not soak your dog’s food. There is a lot of conflicting information about this, some articles say it helps prevent bloat and some say not to do it. The Purdue study found that moistening dry food prior to feeding increased the risk of bloat in large-breed dogs, and a health survey of 1165 great danes found no benefit of pre-soaking.
In addition, soft dog food would contribute to stomach muscle weakness, which was listed as a contributing factor not only by Dr. Peter Dobias but other websites including this article about stomach bloat in dogs by Blue Pearl Veterinary.
Some dog owners ask if it is worth doing preventative surgery to sew the dog’s stomach to the rib cage or abdomen (gastropexy) to prevent twisting of the stomach.
I saw some articles say to consider doing it when the dog is neutered. Dr. Dobias recommends against it for a number of reasons, stating it affects the body’s energy channels and the natural state of the body.
The majority of websites recommended performing a gastropexy if your dog experiences bloat and has surgery to untwist the stomach.
It’s important to consider all of your options and talk with your vet about this, preferably hypothetically at an annual visit so you can get their opinion and think about what you would do – you won’t have time to talk much if your dog is in crisis.
Education is Your Best Defense to Prevent Bloat in Dogs
Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee your dog won’t experience bloat.
Dog owners like my nephew do everything right and it still happens.
Your dog’s best chance of surviving bloat is based on your knowledge of the symptoms, so you notice them early and get your dog to the vet as quickly as possible.
If you are traveling with dogs, use a dog packing list like this free downloadable one to remind you to look up and bring the phone number and location of the nearest vet when you travel. In the event of an emergency, you will be ready.
The most important takeaway?
TRUST YOUR GUT
What alerted my nephew on that awful day wasn’t any specific symptom, it was a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. He examined Wyatt and even with the absence of a concrete reason to be as worried as he was, trusted his gut and took him to the vet immediately to have them check.
Wyatt didn’t have the textbook symptoms; the vet said it was the least symptomatic case of bloat she had ever seen. But Tucker trusted his gut instinct.
This instinct gave Wyatt the best chance he could have. Unfortunately, advanced cancer took that chance from him.
So for today, hug your dog. Learn the symptoms of bloat. And if you ever – EVER – feel like something is wrong with your dog, trust your gut and get them checked out by a vet.
Tucker & Emma: A New Beginning
Four months after Wyatt died, Tucker welcomed a little Bernese Mountain puppy named Emma into his home. She has grown into a spunky, loveable dog and has captured Tucker’s heart.
I think Wyatt would approve.
Until next time-
This article is dedicated to Tucker and his dog Wyatt. Wyatt was one of the sweetest dogs I know, and Tucker worked wonders with him, helping him gain confidence and bloom into a happy, content, and very loved dog. Rest in peace, Wyatt.
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