What is bloat in dogs?
Bloat in dogs — or gastric dilatation-volvulus — is an acute and life-threatening emergency where the stomach overstretches with excessive gas, and rotates.
What causes bloat in dogs?
The causes of bloat in dogs are not well understood.
But the main known risk factors are:
- exertion close to meals (both before and after)
- eating too fast
- eating too much
- gulping down a lot of water straight after a meal
- stress also plays a role, particularly stress around feeding time
This post is for general informational and educational purposes only. I encourage readers to see my full disclaimer here.
How to prevent bloat in dogs
The good news is there is a lot you can do to cut down the risk of bloat.
1. Use a slow feeder bowl
Because fast eating has been associated with bloat, make sure your dog eats slowly.
How to make a dog eat slower? Use a slow feeder bowl for dogs as a precaution.
Here’s the one I have.
I’ve found this bowl’s narrow grooves truly slow down my pup, compared to the slow feeders with just one bump in the centre and quite a wide space around the outside which Shiva can easily get even his flat-faced snout into. It can also go in the dishwasher, which is handy. I use it when feeding cut up muscle meat.
Of course with raw meaty bones the eating is good and slow anyway. Nature’s slow feeder, as well as nature’s toothbrush!
You can also put a portion pacer ball in a regular bowl to slow things down.
2. No exertion close to mealtimes
The risk of bloat seems to be increased by eating a large meal or drinking a lot of water before physical exertion. I try to leave ideally 2 hours but at least 1 hour before and after walks or vigorous playing or excitement. There’s some thought the association of bloat with meals near exercise could be to do with swallowing too much air while eating or drinking.
3. Feed smaller meals
Researchers have found dogs fed a larger volume of food per meal are at a significantly increased risk of bloat. Split the day’s food into several smaller meals.
How many meals a day should a dog eat? Ideally, one. But if bloat is a risk for your breed, consider two. You could even feed both meals at the same end of the day, just a few hours apart.
4. Avoid raised dog bowls
Put your dog’s bowl flat on the ground so he has to bend his neck down to eat. No raised platforms.
Note: This is the exact opposite of what was previously recommended and some dog owners still repeat the out-dated advice.
A study of 1634 dogs published in the Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association in 2000 investigated non-dietary risk factors for bloat. It attributed more than half of all bloat cases in giant breeds to having a raised bowl. In large breed dogs, raised bowls were blamed for 20% of cases.
This is one risk factor that’s super easy to avoid. There is no reason I’m aware of for having a young, healthy dog eat off a raised feeding platform. Given we know it might increase the risk of bloat, it’s a no brainer to just put the bowl right on the floor.
Whenever I’m in doubt I always look to what happens in nature, as a reality check. There ain’t no raised platforms in the wild! With perhaps the exception of dogs with mobility issues, the idea that dogs want or need raised platforms seems to be an entirely human invention.
5. Don’t feed kibble
Much is unknown about bloat — to the extent that atmospheric pressure and humidity have even been investigated to see if they have any role in causation (none was found).
However it would seem logical that dry foods, like kibble, which expand once they reach the stomach would tend to increase the risk. There is some thought that the fillers found in most commercial dog foods up the chances of bloat.
Furthermore, in his book Give Your Dog a Bone, Australian vet Dr Ian Billinghurst says “the excessive calcium in dry dog foods is heavily implicated as a cause of bloat in the adult dog”.
To my mind, the feeding of natural foods with high water content is smart all round, including when it comes to minimizing the risk of bloat.
6. Avoid cruciferous vegetables
If you’re feeding plant matter as part of a meat-based diet, it seems advisable to be cautious with foods that have been associated with excess gas.
That includes cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and its cousins: cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts.
Dark leafy greens like kale, swiss chard and bok choy are also considered cruciferous.
7. Avoid guzzling water
For the same reason that large meals increase the risk of bloat, discourage guzzling of water.
If you have a gulper or a dog who barrels to the water dish after exercise and swallows the sea, interrupt him and get him to wait until he calms down a little.
How common is bloat in dogs?
A British study published in 2017 looked at 77, 088 dogs presenting to emergency clinics in the UK and found bloat represented less than 1 per cent (0.64%) of cases. This would seem to suggest the average dog has more chance of coming to grief through some means other than bloat.
But the risk of bloat is much higher for certain breeds.
Which breeds are more at risk?
Bloat is most common in large or giant breed dogs that are deep-chested, but other breeds are not immune. It’s been documented in small dogs, cats and even guinea pigs.
Here are the lifetime risks of bloat for some of the more commonly affected breeds:
- Great Danes 37%
- Irish setters 25%
- Standard poodles 25%
- Weimaraners 19%
Several other large breeds also have risk factors in the double digits.
Bloat runs in the family
When a parent or sibling has bloated, the lifetime risk for a dog doubles.
This means for a Great Dane with a relative that’s already suffered from bloat, the chances of bloating exceed the chances of not bloating.
Other dogs at higher risk include:
- male dogs
- dogs that are underweight
- dogs with a fearful temperament
- older dogs
- pure bred dogs (one study found they’re five times more likely to bloat than cross-breeds)
- heavier dogs (dogs weighing more than 40kg have almost 149 times the risk, compare to dogs less than 10kg)
Treatment for bloat in dogs
Surgery for bloat in dogs is pretty much the option. Emergency surgery.
Depending on what stage the dog’s bloat has reached the vet might first try putting a tube down the dog’s throat or a needle into the stomach to release the pressure.
A study of 77 088 dogs attending 50 clinics across the UK between 2012 and 2014 found that almost 80 per cent of dogs that received surgical treatment survived.
Non-surgical management has been associated with a high mortality rate and a high rate of recurrence.
What are the symptoms of bloat in dogs?
Initial signs of bloat in dogs include restlessness, hyper-salivation and non-productive attempts to vomit. This is usually followed by further discomfort and gradual abdominal distension. However a distended abdomen may be more or less obvious depending on the dog. Eventually there will be signs of pain.
You may see weakness and hear a hollow drum-like or pinging sound when the belly is tapped sharply.
Without intervention, the condition progresses to circulatory collapse, a twisting of the stomach and respiratory compromise.
Look for a weak pulse, pale and tacky gums that take longer than usual to turn back to pink when you press on them.
What to do?
Get to the vet immediately if you suspect your dog has bloat. It comes on fast and progresses quickly. Immediate intervention and likely surgery can be life-saving.
There are vets who recommend “prophylactic gastropexy” on dogs of high risk breeds.
This is an operation to affix the stomach to the abdomen wall to prevent it ever twisting at some future time.
Surgery on healthy dogs is a highly interventionist approach, however. It’s worth remembering any ansesthetic procedure comes with not insignificant risks.
Don’t panic. There is a lot you can do. Know the factors that contribute to bloat and take every step you can to reduce your dog’s risk. If the worst happens, get to an ER fast.