Gastric dilation or ‘bloat’ is an emergency condition where the stomach dilates with gas and can twist on itself. You may see this condition referred to as a ‘GDV’: standing for Gastric Dilation and Volvulus. The dilated, bloated stomach causes extreme pain for the dog, who will often pace around, whine, burp or retch, trying to relieve the pressure out of the stomach.
Even more worrying is that if the stomach – full of gas – starts to move around in the dog’s abdomen, it can twist on itself, cutting off the blood supply to the stomach. This is potentially life-threatening to the dog as the stomach tissue starts to die quickly without a blood supply; this causes toxin release and the dog will enter a state of ‘toxic shock’.
It also causes problems with other body systems:
- Respiratory system – the bloated stomach will prevent full expansion of the lungs. In turn, this will prevent enough oxygen getting into the blood and will affect all the dog’s organs.
- Spleen – this can also twist with the stomach and cut off the blood supply, causing more tissue damage and toxin release.
- Liver – can be affected by a lack of oxygen, as well as damage caused by the release of toxins within the body.
- Heart and blood systems – the normal flow of blood back to the heart can be blocked by the bloated stomach. This leads to hypovolaemic shock (shock due to reduced blood circulation around the body).
The majority of dogs affected by this condition are large breeds with deep chests, such as German Shepherds, Labrador retrievers, Great Danes, St Bernards etc. Any aged animal can be affected. The exact cause is not fully known. There are some factors we know to increase the risk, such as exercise following the ingestion of large quantities of food or water, intense activity or stress. Abnormalities of normal outflow of food from the stomach, e.g. due to electrical/nerve abnormalities of the stomach muscles, may also be part of the problem.
Signs suggestive of GDV include:
- Retching/gagging, where the dog tries to be sick but doesn't produce anything
- Excessive salivating/drooling
- Distended abdomen
- Frequent belching
If you see any of these suggestive signs in your dog, you should seek immediate veterinary attention. The vet will examine your dog and if GDV is suspected, he/she will be admitted for diagnostic tests and emergency treatment. The dog will be given pain relief and placed on a drip to dilute toxins and maintain blood pressure; to relieve some of the gas, a tube will be passed into the stomach.
If the diagnosis is confirmed, your dog may need surgery to untwist the stomach. The stomach will then be surgically anchored to the body wall (gastropexy) to reduce the chance of the stomach twisting again. If the spleen has been involved and is damaged, it may need to be removed. Your dog will be kept hospitalised for some time after surgery to make sure he/she is recovering appropriately and not suffering with any longer-term problems from the toxins or reduced blood pressure that may have occurred before the surgery. The dog will need strict rest for a minimum of 10 days after surgery.