By Dr. Theresa Burke and Dr. Cheryl Bater
In veterinary medicine, there are many situations and conditions that constitute an emergency for the pet, but really only one that is as devastating or life-threatening as gastric dilatation-volvulus or “bloat”.
Gastric dilatation-volvulus (or bloat) is a condition where the stomach is filled with air and/or food and becomes greatly distended beyond its normal size. For reasons that are yet to be fully understood, the distended stomach may rotate or twist on itself, cutting off its own blood supply and leaving no way for the accumulated air in the stomach to escape. Dogs in this condition can die very quickly – even in a matter of hours – unless a significant emergency care is initiated.
Most frequently, this condition affects those breeds of dogs described as having a “deep chest.” Typically, dogs whose chest length from spine to sternum is longer than their chest width from right to left are at greatest risk. Examples of breeds at greater risk for bloat are Great Danes, St. Bernards, Weimaraners, Greyhounds, Collies, Shepherds and Boxers. It is important to note however that any breed of dog can bloat even smaller breeds such as Dachshunds and Chihuahua.
Historically, the bloated dog is one who has recently eaten a large meal and then engages in vigorous play or exercise. Certain other risk factors have emerged that appear to increase the risk for blood such as feeding only one meal a day, eating rapidly, having siblings or other closely related family members with a history of bloat, males are more prone than females, and having a more nervous or timid personality.
Classic signs of bloat in a dog may be an obviously distended stomach, especially up near the ribs, and demonstrating repeated efforts to vomit or retch with little or nothing coming up. If these signs are seen, the pet should be rushed to a veterinarian immediately.
Emergency treatment for bloat consists of decompressing the stomach as quickly as possible while simultaneously instituting treatment for shock. Very careful monitoring of the cardiovascular system is essential, and often these dogs develop a very dangerous and life-threatening heart arrhythmia secondary to their bloat. Unfortunately, a number of dogs do die of their condition despite all efforts being made to save them.
Once stabilized, a dog with bloat should undergo surgery, sometimes on an immediate emergency basis. During surgery, the stomach and other internal organs can be thoroughly examined for areas of dying tissue that must be removed. In addition, a surgical technique called gastropexy is performed on the stomach, which consists of permanently suturing or tacking the stomach into its normal position so that it is nearly impossible for the stomach to twist ever again.
In conclusion, be prepared. Owners of big dogs should be familiar with the signs to look for that suggests bloat or GDV. Avoid having your pet engage in vigorous play or exercise immediately after eating, feed multiple smaller meals per day and know the location of your nearest dictionary emergency care facility.
Download an emergency symptom chart to keep on hand.