Bloat, torsion, and GDV can affect any dog and these conditions can be fatal, so it is important to be aware of these conditions as well as prepared for what to do in case of a GDV/Bloat emergency.
This current article will help you recognize and understand the signs of GDV/Bloat in dogs. This will be a very frank, honest, and, at times, seemingly "cold" conversation about this condition. Presenting it in this way though is truly the best way to help you and your dog, and it's far better for you to know and face this information now, rather than once GDV has already happened and you and your dog are at the Animal ER. So, without further ado, let's jump right in…
Tips for Dealing with Bloat:
- If your dog has a bloated stomach and is pacing or trying to vomit unsuccessfully, IMMEDIATELY bring your dog to the vet. While this may not be a life-threatening case of GDV/Bloat, these are always a serious combination of signs. If your regular veterinarian isn't open, please seek immediate veterinary attention at an Animal ER (Find an Animal ER). After your dog has been professionally evaluated and is in more stable condition come back here to learn more.
- Your dog can be suffering from bloat even if his stomach does not appear to be obviously bloated.
- Pacing and restlessness are common in dogs with GDV.
- Excessive salivia and multiple, unsuccessful attempts to vomit are common signs of GDV.
- Immediate and appropriate treatment for dogs suffering from GDV saves lives!
How do I know if my dog is suffering from GDV?
This, of course, is the logical place to start a discussion of "Preparedness" - right? After all, if you can't recognize the condition, how will you know when to spring into action! So, if you notice any of the signs listed below, especially if multiple signs are present, bring your dog for IMMEDIATE veterinary evaluation. Time is truly of the essence in cases of GDV/Bloat —so please, do not delay.
- Distended or "bloated" abdomen: Note that this may not be obvious if your dog is very large or "deep chested." In these dogs the area of the abdomen where a distended stomach resides may be up behind the ribcage. This sign may also not be so obvious if your dog is very furry. Do not rely on the presence of an obvious bloated abdomen to determine if your dog may be suffering from GDV/Bloat. - The absence of this sign does NOT rule out the condition!
- Elbows pointed outward with neck extended: This is your dog's attempt to improve their ability to breathe. This is necessary as the rapidly distending stomach makes it difficult for the lungs to expand. Abducting the elbows and pointing them outward can help (albeit minimally) by enlarging the space available for the lungs to expand within the chest cavity.
- Pacing and restlessness: Dogs affected by GDV/Bloat will have a difficult time getting comfortable and laying down. This is because they are in true physiologic (physical, mental, and metabolic) distress and they are in the process of dying. Pacing and restlessness is often one of the most obvious and early signs, so pay attention to it! In the later stages your dog's pacing and restlessness will progress to collapse and decreased responsiveness (further described below).
- Unproductive retching: This is where your dog is making repeated attempts to vomit, but nothing (or very little) is coming out. You may see small amounts of water or, more often, large volumes of thick, stringy saliva coming out. This is still considered "unproductive retching" and unproductive retching is practically a "telltale sign" of GDV/Bloat!
- Excessive saliva: The amount of saliva in dogs suffering from GDV/Bloat is sometimes quite profuse. This excess saliva may be accompanied by "lip smacking." Both signs are likely a result of the feeling of nausea that affected dogs experience with this condition.
- Fast, heavy, or otherwise difficult breathing: This isn't just a result of the decreased space within the chest that's available for the lungs to expand. It's also because of the acid/base and other metabolic abnormalities that are occurring in your dog's body as a result of GDV/Bloat. It is also a result of the pain and distress caused by the condition. Think about how you feel after you overindulge at Thanksgiving, then multiply that feeling of discomfort by a factor of 20!
- Rapid heart and pulse rate: This can be an early sign due to the pain and distress associated with this condition. However, it's also typical as the condition progresses, due primarily to the compromised blood flow throughout your dog's body which is also known as shock. In the later stages of shock the pulse rate will actually drop, and this is a very bad sign! For this reason, as well as many others, you should know how to check your dog's pulse rate, and know what your dog’s normal resting pulse rate is. Ask your vet or one of the vet techs to show you how to do this. It's simple to do, and can help you save your dog's life.
- Pale mucus membranes and prolonged capillary refill time (CRT): The color of the tissues above your dog's teeth can be an indication of the health and function of their circulatory system (heart and blood vessels). I've highlighted "can" because multiple other, non-circulatory, factors can also influence this color. But if you notice that these tissues have lost their typical pink color and are now pale, or if it takes more than 2 seconds (or less than 1 second) for that pink color to return following the application of gentle pressure with your finger, this may indicate a problem—especially if accompanied by any of the other signs in this list. Whether it’s slow or too quick to return to color can vary based on how far the condition has progressed. This is another tool that all pet owners should ask their vet (or one of the techs) to demonstrate during a routine visit.
- Collapse: This is, as you might imagine, a very obvious sign - so long as someone is around to witness it. Sadly though, collapse is typically a very late sign of GDV. Often by the time an affected dog collapses, the condition has been going on for quite some time. At this point the prognosis is getting significantly worse by the second. Many conditions in dogs can result in collapse. What is important to note is that, regardless of the cause, collapse is always a sign of a serious problem that warrants immediate evaluation by a veterinarian. If your dog collapses, for any reason, bring them to a veterinarian immediately.
So, that's a list of some of the signs that can be seen in dogs experiencing GDV/Bloat. But now I'll go you even one better… they say that a picture is worth 1,000 words, right? Then surely a video must be worth 1,000,000—don't you agree? Below is a truly fantastic (and eye-opening) video from the good folks at Akita Rescue Mid-Atlantic Coast. Be sure to watch it - because as a community we are very lucky that they were able to catch such a clear example of GDV/Bloat in progress! As you'll see, and as they highlight in the voiceover, the poor dog in the video is exhibiting many of the signs outlined above.
One point from the video that I'd like to clarify regards one of the statements they make at the end - that "Bloat" is 95 percent fatal. It is important to note that this quoted mortality rate (i.e. the percentage of affected dogs that die or are euthanized) is for cases that go undetected and/or untreated. The prognosis is significantly better for cases that are (1) caught earlier and (2) treated appropriately and promptly.
I'll go more into why I keep stressing appropriate treatment in my article about treatments for GDV. Please just appreciate that, all other things being equal, the type and quality of the treatment a bloated dog receives can have a significant impact on their chances for survival. Mortality rates for dogs treated promptly and appropriately have been reported as low as 15 percent—as opposed to the 95 percent mortality rate for untreated cases.
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Dogs with GDV/Bloat who are treated promptly and appropriately can be, and frequently are, saved.Well there's a whole lot there, and so that's it for the signs of GDV. For more information on GDV and Bloat in dogs, please read my other articles on this important topic—Understanding Bloat, Is My Dog at Risk for GDV/Bloat?, and What Should I do if My Dog Bloats?
I hope you've found this informative and easy to follow. Please share this information with your dog-owning friends and family. Hopefully they'll never need it, but they'll sure thank you for it if they do.
*Note: Even though I highlighted the difference between the terms "Bloat" and "GDV" in my Understanding Bloat article, you've likely noticed that I refer to Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus as "GDV/Bloat" in this and other articles on the topic. I'm doing this because many pet owners (and vets) use the terms interchangeably, and it's important for everybody to realize that when most people google or say "Bloat," they are really looking for and referring to GDV. So I'm using the conjoined term to ensure that everybody can find and learn from this important information. I hope it hasn't caused you any confusion.