This article was updated on September 18th, 2023
While bloat is one of the medical emergencies they are forever mentioning in veterinary school, in my experience it is relatively rare when compared to other emergencies. Perhaps it is more of an issue in other parts of the world (I treated two cases when working in Texas) but I’ve only ever seen a handful of cases in my last 10 years of clinical practices in the UK.
When dogs bloat, signs appear rapidly, and the dog is evidently very unwell. If the bloated stomach flips over on its axis (Gastric Dilatation Volvulus), this becomes a life-threatening emergency, and the dog would undoubtedly die within the day if not treated.
Overview of bloating in dogs
Bloat is the buildup of gas, ingesta and liquid within the stomach. The stomach expands much larger than it should, causing abdominal discomfort. It can potentially become hugely distended and then twist on its own axis. This traps the gas inside, meaning it cannot escape and the issue quickly worsens.
Once this happens, the blood supply becomes compressed and circulation is compromised. We can also see effects on local organs, such as the spleen. The dog may ultimately go into circulatory shock (1) and die shortly after. 1
The Great Dane, Akita and Dogue de Bodeaux are at highest risk. In one study of dogs presented to a chain of emergency clinics over 18 months, there were 492 cases of bloat, with a prevalence of 0.64%. Older dogs were at highest risk2.
Top symptoms that indicate that your dog is bloated
- An abdomen that is getting visibly larger and more taut
- Restlessness and pacing. This occurs as the dog is in a lot of pain, so cannot stay still.
- Retching and attempted vomiting. As the stomach has twisted, the vomit and gas cannot be released, despite the dog’s best efforts.
- Excessive drooling
- Dark gums, due to poor circulation (the gums become pale as the condition progresses and the dog goes into shock)
- Increased heart rate, as the circulation begins to fail and the dog becomes more painful and anxious
How fast does bloating progress in dogs?
Timeline of stages involved when your dog experiences bloating*
|Time||Description||How to help your dog|
|20 minutes- several hours or even days. For some dogs this phase is prolonged before the stomach twists, for others it lasts no more than a few minutes. This phase usually starts 1-2 hours after eating a large meal.||Phase 1 – You may notice some swelling of the abdomen. Your dog is anxious and restless and may be bringing up foam and retching||Seek immediate vet care. If seen before the stomach rotates, your vet can decompress the stomach with a tube, meaning surgery would not be required.|
|20 minutes to several hours||Phase 2 – Your dog will be visibly distressed. They will continually attempt to retch and gag and will be drooling a lot. Their abdomen will be large and tense like a taut drum.||Seek immediate vet care. On admission to the clinic, your vet will stabilize your dog by releasing the gas and providing shock rate fluids, before performing surgery to correct the twisting.|
|A few minutes to 1-2 hours||Phase 3 – Dogs in this phase are close to death and may be collapsed. Their gums are pale and they have a weak pulse and shallow breathing.||The prognosis is a lot poorer, but the vet will attempt to save your dog with intensive care and surgery. Dead parts of spleen and stomach may need to be surgically removed.|
*How long it takes for bloat to develop and progress is highly variable and for some dogs, they progress between all stages in less than an hour.
Dog bloat timeline chart:
Top reasons causing bloating in dogs
Stress and excitement
A dog who is anxious and excited is generally moving around more and expending more energy. These dogs can elevate their body temperature and will be panting more to expel heat. When too much air is inhaled, this can lead to bloat.
Where we can, we want to try and prevent our dogs from getting worked up and overly hyper. This can mean managing their environment and avoiding stimuli we know they find hard to cope with, like fireworks or being left alone for prolonged periods. Some dogs may benefit from calming products like collars and supplements.
Feeding from a height
It was once recommended to avoid bloat by feeding from a height but we now know that this actually has the opposite effect (2), perhaps due to increased air consumption due to the unnatural feeding position. 3
It makes sense that if a dog eats too much food, the stomach can stretch beyond what it should, which can make it more likely to twist. This is especially the case if the dog eats rapidly and inhales lots of air.
We can help prevent this by splitting meals into smaller portions and using slow feeder bowls. Larger dogs should have meals split into at least two a day.
Drinking too much
Similarly to above, a large amount of water in the stomach could lead to it distending and then twisting. If your dog guzzles water quickly, encourage sips and portion out their water.
Try to avoid situations where your dog feels the need to guzzle water, like if they have become over heated or have had their water withheld for some time.
Owner of breeds prone to bloat may sometimes restrict water for a short time before and after meals, but this has actually been proven to increase the risks; perhaps due to the water guzzling it causes.
There is no doubt that larger dogs with deeper chests are most prone to bloating. There is more space within their abdomen for the stomach to swing and twist. One of the breeds most known for bloating is the tall Great Dane.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
Some owners of breeds prone to bloating will choose to do an elective surgery called a ‘gastropexy’ to pin the stomach to the abdominal wall, so it cannot twist. This may be done during neutering, or even during a surgery for a bloating episode.
When a dog runs, jumps and frolics they will be breathing rapidly and taking in large quantities of air. This air can lead to stomach swelling, as some goes into the stomach rather than the lungs.
It is generally advised we do not schedule our dog’s exercise or training for right after they have eaten or had a large drink.
How severe is bloating to dogs?
This is a true and serious emergency that always requires immediate vet care; even if it is the middle of the night. Delaying treatment by even an hour or two could have fatal consequences.
Could my dog be in pain?
Yes, bloating is known to cause intense pain. Signs of pain might include panting, pacing, whining and visible distress.
What will occur if left untreated?
If the dog’s stomach has filled with a little gas but has not twisted and the dog is behaving normally, recovery at home may occur if the dog burps, hiccups and farts the excess air out.
However, if signs progress and the stomach becomes distended or twisted, things will quickly progress for the worse.
Sadly, once a stomach has twisted, the dog will ultimately die a rapid and painful death if they do not see a vet right away.
WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]
When to see your veterinarian
Signs that you need to call the veterinarian
Any signs that the bloat has progressed to Phase 1 Bloat (the stomach is dilated) means urgent vet care is needed. You will know your dog is bloating as they will be behaving abnormally. This may include signs like gagging, anxiety and drooling. If you can see your dog’s abdomen is distended or taut, they need to be seen right away.
Signs that you can wait-and-see
If your dog is calm and happy, very mild abdominal discomfort or gas build up may well resolve from home. If a little bloated after eating, try to keep your dog relaxed and quiet and keep a very close eye on them to see if things progress.
You can call your vet to discuss if a medicine like an antacid is appropriate, and to enquire about local emergency vet care options in case you may need them over the next few hours.
- Bloat – The Mother of All Emergencies From The Pet Health Care Library
- Journal of Small Animal Practice. Gastric dilation-volvulus in dogs attending UK emergency-care veterinary practices: prevalence, risk factors and survival. O’Neill
- Risk Factors for Canine Bloat Tufts’ Canine and Feline Breeding and Genetics Conference, 2003