Features January 2005 Issue

Dog Bloat: Causes, Signs, and Symptoms

Learn to recognize the signs of canine bloat—it can be deadly for far too many dogs.

[Updated Feb 19, 2016]

Imagine seeing your dog exhibit some strange symptoms, rushing him to the vet within minutes, only to have the vet proclaim his case to be hopeless and recommend euthanasia. For too many pet parents, that’s the story of bloat in dogs, an acute medical condition characterized by a rapid accumulation of gas in the stomach.

Large- and giant-breed dogs, especially those with deep chests, are at greatest risk of bloat, but dogs of any size can be stricken. Nervous dogs and underweight individuals are also more likely to bloat than calm or overweight dogs.

In fact, that was exactly the case with Remo, a Great Dane owned by Sharon Hansen of Tucson, Arizona. “He was at the vet’s in under seven minutes,” says Hansen, in describing how quickly she was able to respond to Remo’s symptoms. He had just arisen from an unremarkable, hour-long nap, so Hansen was stunned to see Remo displaying some of the classic symptoms of bloat, including restlessness, distended belly, and unproductive vomiting.

Despite Hansen’s quick action, Remo’s situation rapidly became critical. Radiographs showed that his stomach had twisted 180 degrees. Remo was in great pain and the vet felt the damage was irreversible. Hansen made the difficult decision to have Remo euthanized at that time.

Canine bloat, or more technically, gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV), is a top killer of dogs, especially of deep-chested giant and large breeds, such as Great Danes and Standard Poodles. A study published in Veterinary Surgery in 1996 estimated that 40,000 to 60,000 dogs in the United States are affected with GDV each year with a mortality rate of up to 33 percent.

Gas accumulation alone is known as bloat, or dilatation. The accumulation of gas sometimes causes the stomach to rotate or twist on its axis; this is referred to as torsion or volvulus. Bloat can occur on its own, or as a precursor to torsion. In this article, to simplify the terms, bloat and GDV are used interchangeably.

Both conditions can be life-threatening, although it often takes longer for a straightforward gastric dilatation without volvulus to become critical. “Bloats without torsion can last for minutes to hours, even days in low-level chronic situations, without it becoming life-threatening. But with torsion, the dog can progress to shock rapidly, even within minutes,” explains Alicia Faggella DVM, DACVECC, a board-certified specialist in veterinary emergency and critical care.

“A dog can go into shock from bloat because the stomach expands, putting pressure on several large arteries and veins. Blood does not get through the body as quickly as it should,” continues Dr. Faggella. In addition, the blood supply gets cut off to the stomach, which can cause tissue to die, while toxic products build up.

While some less acute cases of bloat may resolve themselves, it often takes an experienced veterinarian to know just how serious the problem may be, and whether surgical intervention is required to save the dog’s life.

Dog Bloat is Frighteningly Deadly

Various studies have estimated the mortality rate for dogs who have experienced an episode of GDV, and while the results varied, they were all frighteningly high – from about 18 percent to more than 30 percent. The rates used to be much higher, however.

“Veterinarians over the past two decades have reduced dramatically the postoperative fatality rate from gastric dilatation-volvulus from more than 50 percent to less than 20 percent by using improved therapy for shock, safer anesthetic agents, and better surgical techniques,” says Lawrence Glickman, VMD, DrPH, and lead researcher on a number of studies related to GDV at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

In many acute cases of GDV, surgery is the only option to save the life of the animal. In addition to repositioning the stomach, it may also be “tacked” to the abdominal wall in a procedure called gastropexy. While dogs who have had gastropexy may experience gastric dilatation again, it is impossible for the stomach to rotate, as in volvulus or torsion.

What Causes Bloat in Dogs?

Theories about what causes GDV abound, including issues related to anatomy, environment, and care. Research from Purdue University, particularly over the past 10 years, has shown that there are certain factors and practices that appear to increase the risk of GDV, some of which fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

“We don’t know exactly why GDV happens,” says Dr. Faggella. Some people do all of the “wrong” things, and their dogs don’t experience it, she says, while some do all of what we think are the “right” things, and their dogs do.

The most widely recognized and accepted risk factor is anatomical – being a larger, deep-chested dog. When viewed from the side, these dogs have chest cavities that are significantly longer from spine to sternum, when compared to the width of the chest cavity viewed from the front.

This body shape may increase the risk of bloat because of a change in the relationship between the esophagus and the stomach. “In dogs with deeper abdomens, the stretching of the gastric ligaments over time may allow the stomach to descend relative to the esophagus, thus increasing the gastroesophageal angle, and this may promote bloat,” says Dr. Glickman.

But it isn’t just large- and giant-breed dogs that can bloat; smaller breeds do as well. “I’ve seen Dachshunds, Yorkies, and other small Terrier breeds with bloat,” says Dr. Faggella. She emphasizes that all dog guardians should be familiar with the signs of bloat, and be ready to rush their dog to the vet if any of the symptoms are present.

Likelihood of an incident of bloat seems to increase with age. Purdue reports that there is a 20 percent increase in risk for each year increase in age. This may be related to increased weakness, over time, in the ligaments holding the stomach in place, Dr. Glickman explains.

Another key risk factor is having a close relative that has experienced GDV. According to one of the Purdue studies that focused on nondietary risk factors for GDV, there is a 63 percent increase in risk associated with having a first degree relative (sibling, parent, or offspring) who experienced bloat.

Personality and stress also seem to play a role. Dr. Glickman’s research found that risk of GDV was increased by 257 percent in fearful dogs versus nonfearful dogs. Dogs described as having a happy personality bloated less frequently than other dogs. “These findings seem to be consistent from study to study,” adds Dr. Glickman.

Dogs who eat rapidly and are given just one large meal per day have an increased susceptibility to GDV than other dogs. The Purdue research found that “for both large- and giant-breed dogs, the risk of GDV was highest for dogs fed a larger volume of food once daily.”

The ingredients of a dog’s diet also appear to factor into susceptibility to bloat. A Purdue study examined the diets of over 300 dogs, 106 of whom had bloated. This study found that dogs fed a dry food that included a fat source in the first four ingredients were 170 percent more likely to bloat than dogs who were fed food without fat in the first four ingredients. In addition, the risk of GDV increased 320 percent in dogs fed dry foods that contained citric acid and were moistened before feeding. On the other hand, a rendered meat meal that included bone among the first four ingredients lowered risk by 53 percent.

Another study by Purdue found that adding “table foods in the diet of large- and giant-breed dogs was associated with a 59 percent decreased risk of GDV, while inclusion of canned foods was associated with a 28 percent decreased risk.” The relationship between feeding a home-prepared diet, either cooked or raw, hasn’t been formally researched.

Anecdotally, however, many holistic vets believe that a home-prepared diet significantly reduces the risk of bloat. “I haven’t seen bloat in more than five years,” says Monique Maniet, DVM, of Veterinary Holistic Care in Bethesda, Maryland. She estimates that 75 to 80 percent of her clients feed a raw or home-cooked diet to their dogs.

Dr. Faggella also noticed a difference in the occurrence of bloat while in Australia, helping a university set up a veterinary critical care program. “I didn’t see bloat as commonly there [as compared to the US],” she says. They feed differently there, with fewer prepared diets and more raw meat and bones, which may contribute to the lower incidence of GDV, she adds.

It is often recommended that limiting exercise and water before and after eating will decrease the risk of bloat. However, in one of the Purdue studies, while exercise or excessive water consumption around meal time initially seemed to affect likelihood of GDV, when other factors were taken into account, such as having a close relative with a history of GDV, in a “multivariate model,” these factors were no longer associated with an increased risk of bloat.

Or, more simply put, “there seems to be no advantage to restricting water intake or exercise before or after eating,” says Dr. Glickman.

Preventing Dog Bloat

Because the theories and research on what causes bloat aren’t always in agreement, the ways to prevent GDV can conflict as well. One thing that everyone can agree on, though, is that feeding smaller meals several times a day is the best option for reducing the risk.

One of the top recommendations to reduce the occurrence of GDV from the Purdue researchers is to not breed a dog that has a first-degree relative that has bloated. Results of their study suggest that “the incidence of GDV could be reduced by approximately 60 percent, and there may be 14 percent fewer cases in the population, if such advice were followed.”

In addition, Glickman says they recommend prophylactic gastropexy for dogs “at a very high risk, such as Great Danes. Also, we do not recommend that dogs have this surgery unless they have been neutered or will be neutered at the same time.”

The concern about performing a gastropexy on an unneutered dog is that it “might mask expression of a disease with a genetic component in a dog that might be bred.”

While gastropexy hasn’t been evaluated in its ability to prevent GDV from happening the first time, research has shown that just five percent of dogs whose stomachs are tacked as a result of an episode of GDV will experience a repeat occurrence, whereas up to 80 percent of dogs whose stomachs are simply repositioned experience a reoccurrence.

Phazyme: The Controversial Gas-Reliever

After Remo’s death, Sharon Hansen learned that some large-breed dog owners swear by an anti-gas product called Phazyme for emergency use when bloat is suspected. Phazyme is the brand name of gelcaps containing simethicone, an over-the-counter anti-gas remedy for people. GlaxoSmith-Kline, maker of Phazyme, describes it as a defoaming agent that reduces the surface tension of gas bubbles, allowing the gas to be eliminated more easily by the body.

Less than a year and a half later, Hansen had an opportunity to try the product when her new rescue dog Bella, a Dane/Mastiff mix, bloated. “Bella came looking for me one afternoon, panting and obviously in distress,” explains Hansen, who immediately recognized the signs of bloat.

Hansen was prepared with caplets of Phazyme on hand. “I was giving her the caplets as we headed out to the car,” says Hansen. Almost immediately, Bella began to pass gas on the short ride to the vet. “She started passing gas from both ends,” Hansen says. By the time they arrived at the vet, Bella was acting much more comfortable, and seemed significantly less distressed.

At the vet’s office, gastric dilatation was confirmed, and luckily, there was no evidence of torsion. Hansen credits the Phazyme for reducing the seriousness of Bella’s episode. This is a generally accepted practice among guardians of bloat-prone dogs, but not all experts agree with it.

Dr. Faggella cautions against giving anything by mouth, as it could cause vomiting, which could lead to aspiration. “If you suspect bloat, simply bring your dog to the vet immediately. The earlier we catch it, the better,” she says.

Dr. Nancy Curran, DVM, a holistic vet in Portland, Oregon, agrees that trying to administer anything orally could lead to greater problems. However, she suggests that Rescue Remedy, a combination of flower essences that is absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth, may help ease the shock and trauma. “Rescue Remedy helps defuse the situation for everyone involved. It won’t cure anything, but it can be helpful on the way to the vet,” she says, recommending that the guardian take some as well as dosing the dog.

Holistic Prevention of Dog Bloat

“We may be able to recognize an imbalance from a Chinese medical perspective,” says Dr. Curran. She’s found that typically dogs prone to bloat have a liver/stomach disharmony. Depending on the dog’s situation, she may prescribe a Chinese herbal formula, use acupuncture, and/or suggest dietary changes and supplements to correct the underlying imbalance, thereby possibly preventing an episode in the first place.

Dr. Maniet also looks to balance a dog’s system early on as the best form of prevention. Each of her patients is evaluated individually and treated accordingly, most often with Chinese herbs or homeopathic remedies.

Both holistic vets also recommend the use of digestive enzymes and probiotics, particularly for breeds susceptible to canine bloat, or with existing digestive issues. “Probiotics and digestive enzymes can reduce gas, so I’d expect that they will also help reduce bloat,” explains Dr. Maniet.

Another avenue to consider is helping your fearful or easily stressed dog cope better in stressful situations. While no formal research has been conducted to confirm that this in fact would reduce the risk of bloat, given the statistics that indicate how much more at risk of GDV fearful dogs are, it certainly couldn’t hurt. Things to consider include positive training, desensitization, Tellington TTouch Method, calming herbs, aromatherapy, or flower essences.

While there is an abundance of information on how to prevent and treat bloat, much of it is conflicting. The best you can do is to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of GDV and know your emergency care options. While it may be difficult to prevent completely, one thing is clear. The quicker a bloating dog gets professional treatment the better. 

-Shannon Wilkinson, of Portland, Oregon, is a freelance writer, life coach, and TTouch practitioner.

Comments (11)

I'm no expert, far from it, but I'm thinking "brewers yeast" is something I wouldn't give to prevent bloat. Isn't "creating bubbles" the thing that yeast is supposed to do? I'm all for the yogurt but not too excited about the yeast. It seems counter-productive.

Posted by: Pommette | January 5, 2017 8:38 AM    Report this comment

Why GAS? Why is there GAS in the dogs' system? I would be interested to know - have any of the dogs' shown GAS prior to this massive accumulation?

It is my understanding the GAS inside the body is a reaction from all the garbage in the processed foods, dyes, additives etc. Or it could be a specific food type which has been introduced to the dog's diet which the dog can not process, if home cooked. This is always identified and removed.

If a dog is having ANY GAS - ever - the FOOD must be addressed ASAP. Adding supplements, or drugs and continuing with the same food is not a solution. The dog's body is already telling you, the caretaker, the current diet is NOT okay. Address the diet ASAP. [This is assuming there is NO STRESS in the canine's environment.] If one continues with the same food - even though supplements / drugs take care of the GAS you have a compromised system which WILL show a breakdown elsewhere. It is just a matter what this might look like and when. A homeopathic vet whom deals with real food diet can help here.

On torsion - it is my understanding the DRY dog food creates a heavy bowling ball effect in the gut. Which rocks side to side. The food goes down but it is thick, sticky and takes a long long time to digest, coating all the interior organ walls as well - junking the interior system as it is not natural to the canine body, no dry food is.

Breeding was not addressed. Have humans manipulated the body in such a way that this is man's creation? As the body is a magnificent intelligent structure; for it to do this - makes no logical sense. We are then perhaps back to DIET?

Activated Charcoal is a natural diffuser of gas for animals and people. It is a MUST in the first aid kit as it also pulls out POISON.

Posted by: AnimalsMindBodySpirit | December 9, 2016 4:58 PM    Report this comment

I have golden retrievers but this is something that I have always been aware of. I wonder if feeding dogs at risk of bloating in Kongs would make a difference? I use them intermittently for one of my dogs & it takes him at least 30 minutes to empty it completely.

Also, whilst I understand the theory behind not exercising a dog straight after eating, I don't understand why eating soon after exercise bad for a dog. Of course I don't feed mine immediately after walking through the door if they're excited & panting, say after a trip to the beach which for my guys is absolutely the best thing ever, but I don't usually make them wait more than about 15 minutes. I've done this with all four of the dogs I've had over the last 16 years & never had any issues. I would be interested to learn the reasoning behind not feeding straight after exercise.

Posted by: Grevillia | December 5, 2016 3:09 AM    Report this comment

Don't think there must be a distended stomach that is visible. My thin standard poodle bloated and even the vet did not think it was bloat when she first saw him. The xray told a different story. He had emergency surgery and survived.

Posted by: DonnaE | December 4, 2016 11:30 PM    Report this comment

I have a 62-pound deep-chested labradoodle who was prone to bloat.Two things that really helped which this article didn't mention: using a slow-feed dish and placing her dish on an 18" platform so she doesn't have to bend over so much. Plus adding probiotics, a little pumpkin puree and a little yogurt; she is now a healthy 8-year old active dog.

Posted by: drlucy | December 4, 2016 7:00 PM    Report this comment

I have a Rhodesian Ridgeback and did not know about bloat until your article. I have always had Border Collies (still do) and we had a RR come to our place in horrible condition, bite marks on his head and rump, and afraid of everyone. He was with us for 3 years - went from our homeless shelter on the front porch to sleeping in our bedroom - we had 3 wonderful years with him and lost him to cancer. We have a BC, Aussie, and our sweet little (100+ lbs) RR. I do worry now as we live one hour from our vet and we travel with the "kids" all over the U.S. Our kids always have been given 3 meals a day. Anymore information on bloat you can publish would be be great. Thank you, Brodie's mom

Posted by: suzz.house | December 4, 2016 5:30 PM    Report this comment

Some 40 years ago we lost a nine year old German Shepherd to bloat. He was actually being boarded at the vet's when it happened. We had gone to pick him up and when the kennel helper brought him out he looked like he had swallowed a barrel---I will never forget how he looked. Even though the vet operated right away (there was a 360 degree torsion) he went into septic shock and died. Thankfully I have never had another dog go through that.

Posted by: PJKutscher | December 4, 2016 4:47 PM    Report this comment

We have a 62 pound yellow lab with a deep chest. How much yogurt would be good for her daily? She gets 3 meals a day and we Have to put water in it because she WILL NOT drink enough water on her own -- to the point of dehydration!!! Thank you.

Posted by: Emli'smom | December 4, 2016 2:27 PM    Report this comment

Nothing much to say. I lost a Father and son to Bloat within 6 weeks of each other. Dad was 10 and his son was almost 9. It was awful and still sits in my head. Please add Irish Wolfhounds to you list. Thanks

Posted by: IrishWolfhound | December 4, 2016 12:37 PM    Report this comment

On a Saturday night, 15 years ago I went to up bed hearing my 4-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, Katie, playing with her toys downstairs. In the morning I came downstairs to find her lying on her bed, unable to move anything but her eyes. I immediately guessed bloat, although I don't really know why, and called my vet. He, bless his heart, lives over the clinic and he and his wife had guests for Sunday brunch, but he said to bring her right in.
As a side note, ALWAYS know how you will get your dog into your vehicle in an emergency. I'm a small woman and Katie weighted 108 pounds. Luckily I was able to call a neighbor who came right over and helped me get her into the back of my SUV.
The vet and his kennel boy were waiting for us and got her right in. He worked on her all morning (leaving the kennel boy to watch the cooking upstairs while the vet's wife and I acted as assistants) and, at noon, she sat up. I was elated, but later she relapsed and died at 3 o'clock. I've never been clear about gram positive and gram negative bacteria, but one had been taken care of in the morning, but then the other set in and there was no remedy.
Katie was a happy outgoing girl. She had yogurt and brewers yeast in her diet three meals a day and raw bones to chew on. I don't know which of the products and preventatives given above would have helped, but I certainly plan to have Phazyme on hand for my current deep-chested rescue, Pepper, and keep up the yogurt and brewers yeast, just in case.

Posted by: peppersmum | December 4, 2016 11:52 AM    Report this comment

Our Doberman had GDV. He was about 4 yeas old at that time. We came back from a walk and all of the sudden saw him dragging his huge stomach on the ground. It was so scary. We had no idea what was happening. My husband rushed him to a vet and they performed a surgery right away that saved dog's live.

Posted by: gnorkin@yahoo.com | December 4, 2016 11:50 AM    Report this comment

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In