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Bloat is a serious condition that can rapidly progress to a life-threatening gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV), a medical emergency that requires immediate veterinary care.
Bloat, or gastric dilatation, occurs when the stomach distends with air, fluid or food to several times its normal size. This puts pressure on blood vessels in the abdomen — including those that go to the heart — and causes significant abdominal pain.
It’s common for the stomach to then twist on itself, rotating 180 to 360 degrees on its axis, resulting in a gastric dilatation and volvulus. The twisting compromises the blood supply to the stomach and spleen. If not addressed immediately, GDV can lead to shock and death within hours.
GDV tends to affect deep-chested dog breeds such as Great Danes, Greyhounds and German Shepherds. Although genetics may play a role, any dog can develop bloat. Factors that can increase the risk of bloating include feeding only one meal per day, using elevated dishes and eating or drinking too fast, especially before exercise.
Classic signs of bloat or GDV include sudden onset of abdominal distention, anxiety, distress, unproductive vomiting and pain demonstrated by panting, nipping at the belly or abdominal guarding. Other possible signs include pale gums or collapse. Not every dog presents this way so if you have any concerns, take your dog to your veterinarian immediately.
Your veterinarian will usually recommend abdominal radiographs (X-rays) to confirm the diagnosis. Additional tests, including a complete blood count (CBC) and a serum chemistry profile are typically recommended to help evaluate your dog’s condition. Since many dogs with GDV can develop a potentially fatal heart rhythm called a ventricular premature contraction, your veterinarian may also recommend an electrocardiogram.
To help stabilize your dog, your veterinarian may try to decompress the stomach by releasing the built-up air. This will help restore blood flow to the stomach and heart. Typically, the decompression is done by either inserting a needle into the stomach or by passing a tube down the esophagus and into the stomach. Occasionally, these methods don’t work and surgical decompression is required.
Also, intravenous fluids can be rapidly administered to help treat shock. Medications for pain and abnormal heart rhythm may be recommended as well.
Once the dog is stabilized, the veterinarian may recommend surgery to untwist the stomach, assess internal damage and help prevent a GDV from recurring. If surgery is performed, it usually involves returning the stomach to its normal position and examining the stomach and other abdominal organs, such as the spleen. For some dogs, lack of blood supply may have caused damage to the stomach and/or spleen, and a portion of the stomach or the entire spleen may need to be removed.
Finally, the stomach is tacked to the abdominal wall in a procedure called a gastropexy. This procedure is usually recommended even in cases where the stomach does not twist on itself but simply bloats, because once a dog has bloated, there is a high rate of recurrence in the future. Even with a gastropexy, the stomach may still intermittently distend with gas, but it’s less likely to twist again.
Survival rate is dependent on how quickly the pet is stabilized and treated. If tissue damage is noted at the time of surgery and a portion of the stomach must be removed, the mortality rate (risk of death) increases.
If you own a young, deep-chested dog at high risk for GDV, ask your veterinarian if performing a gastropexy when your dog is under anesthesia for spaying or neutering is right for your pet. Some clinics may be able to perform the procedure laparoscopically (using a fiberoptic camera and specialized instruments inserted through small incisions), which tends to be minimally invasive. While a gastropexy can’t stop the stomach from bloating in the future, it usually helps prevent the stomach from twisting on itself.
Instead of feeding your dog one meal a day, divide his food into two or more daily meals. You can also teach your dog to eat more slowly by feeding with peg bowls or other specialized bowls designed to hinder eating too quickly. Not breeding animals with a history of GDV may also potentially decrease the risk of GDV.
Even with the preventive measures above, we still don’t know why a given dog bloats and there’s no guaranteed way to prevent this condition. If you want to know if your pet could be at risk for GDV, please have a conversation with your family veterinarian.
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