Help... My Dog's Stomach is Bloated! Understanding Canine Bloat, Torsion, and GDV

dog-stomach-bloatStomach bloat, torsion, and their deadly combination - Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV) - are conditions that all dog owners should be aware of, regardless of your dog's breed(s), age, or lifestyle. Awareness is truly crucial.

Why do I keep stressing the importance of awareness for all dog owners when there are well-documented breed predispositions and known or suspected risk factors? For the simple reason that awareness saves lives! While that life may not be that of your dog, it may very well be that of your friend's, neighbor's, or relative's dog… and aren’t they important, too?

With that said… let's get on with the very important topic of canine bloat, torsion, and GDV. I hope you'll find this information both eye-opening and reassuring. I also hope you'll help dog owners you know and love by sharing these articles with them.

Tips for Dealing with Bloat:

  1. 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 (you can find one here - internal hyperlink to search function on Resources page). After your dog has been professionally evaluated and is in more stable condition come back here to learn more.
  2. No matter your dog’s age, size, or breed you need to know about the deadly conditions of stomach bloat, torsion, and GDV.
  3. Stomach bloat refers to a swelling or distention of your dog’s stomach.
  4. Stomach torsion is when your dog’s stomach is twisted at one or both ends.
  5. GDV is a combination of bloat and torsion – and can be rapidly fatal!
  6. Shock is a life-threatening condition where there isn't enough blood reaching the cells and tissues of the body. In hypovolemic shock, this is due to a decreased availability of the blood, either due to severe blood loss or, as is the case with GDV, an inability of the blood present to circulate effectively throughout the body.
Bloat, torsion, and GDV - what's the difference and why does it matter?

Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they are different and you should know the differences between them. But what's most important is that you recognize that all three conditions warrant veterinary evaluation and that all three can be fatal. If your dog shows signs of these conditions, be safe and get them to the vet immediately.

Bloat: The term "bloat" is mostly a generic term indicating an enlargement or swelling of the abdomen. The abdomen is the enclosed compartment (or "cavity") between the chest (thoracic cavity) and the pelvis (pelvic cavity). Many pet owners will say "My dog looks bloated." Such a bloated appearance can be caused by any number of problems within the abdomen, including (but not limited to):

  • Bleeding into the abdomen: This might occur with ingestion of rat poison, trauma, certain types of cancer, or a multitude of other causes.
  • Fluid (that isn’t blood) accumulation within the abdomen: This is often seen with liver failure, certain cancers, in many cases of heart failure, and in conjunction with a variety of other conditions.
  • Abdominal organ enlargement: The affected organ can be the liver, spleen, uterus, or any of the other organs in the abdomen including the stomach.

Of course, even the term "stomach bloat" isn't completely descriptive, as the cause of stomach bloat isn't always the same. You see, the stomach can bloat from a build-up of gas, fluid, ingesta (food, water, or anything else your pet consumes) and even a combination of any or all of these three. While this may all seem like irrelevant minutia, it actually is important from a treatment standpoint. For example, gas bloat is often treated differently than food bloat.

As you can see from even just the partial list of potential causes for a "bloated appearance" of your dog's abdomen, this can be a very serious sign. A bloated appearance should prompt immediate evaluation by a veterinarian. Even if the underlying cause or degree of bloating wouldn't likely have been fatal, it's still better to err on the side of caution. You're likely to appreciate the peace of mind and your dog will likely appreciate the analgesia (pain relief) that the veterinarian may administer if necessary.

Torsion: The term "torsion" basically means twisting or twisted. So here, in relation to stomach torsion, what this means is that the stomach, at either one or both ends, has twisted. In a case of stomach torsion, the degree of the twist is such that it does not completely obstruct the outflow of gas, liquid, or ingesta from the stomach. If the twist completely obstructed such passage, that would be called a "volvulus" which I get into below.

The two ends of the stomach are the end nearer the mouth (known as the "oral end") and the end further away from the mouth (the "aboral end"). The oral end is where the stomach is connected to the esophagus. The aboral end is where the stomach is connected to the beginning part of the intestines. Stomach torsion can compromise the blood flow to and from the stomach, leading to a multitude of metabolic abnormalities and other problems.

There are many different structures within the body that can become twisted or "torsed." It's not just the stomach that can be affected. Animals, including people, can also have torsions of the intestines, urinary or gallbladder, and various other organs - including the spleen (which often occurs concurrently in cases of GDV, as I'll soon explain).

Again, suspected or known torsions, of the stomach or any other structure, must be evaluated by a veterinarian. They aren't only potentially fatal; they can also be extremely painful.

Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV): This is the "big one" - the potentially rapidly-fatal one! GDV is the "Perfect Storm" of dog emergencies, if you will. Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus is basically the worst-case scenario combination of the aforementioned bloat and torsion. In cases of GDV the stomach is bloated (often with a combination of gas, fluid, and ingesta) and it is torsed at both ends, to the point where outflow from the stomach is completely obstructed.

The distention of the stomach in cases of GDV gets progressively worse. This compromises not only blood flow to the stomach, but also the overall blood flow available to the heart, and therefore to the rest of the body. This results in a state of hypovolemic shock  and myriad other problems, all requiring early and aggressive veterinary treatment to avoid death.

Some of the most important secondary effects resulting from this decrease in blood flow include:

  • Necrosis (death) of sections of the stomach wall. This can lead to rupture and spillage of stomach contents into the abdominal cavity.
  • A significant change in the acid/base balance - both of the stomach and throughout the rest of the body.
  • The triggering, and out-of-control spiraling, of the body's natural inflammatory cascade. This can damage a multitude of organs including the heart. This spiraling is called Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome - or SIRS for short. The prognosis if SIRS sets in is not good.
  • A triggering, and out-of-control spiraling, of the body's blood clotting system. This is called Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation - or DIC for short. The development of DIC is very sad to see, as the prognosis once DIC sets in is very poor indeed.

As you have seen, GDV is truly a very grave and severe emergency situation! Fortunately, with prompt recognition and appropriate care, the outcome of GDV cases is often quite good. However, with any delay in recognition and/or appropriate care (even what you might consider a "small delay") these cases are typically fatal.

GDV is not a case where you want to wait until after dinner to take your dog to the vet. It's certainly not one where you want to wait until the morning to "see your regular vet" or to "see if your dog is still acting strange." Bring your dog for immediate veterinary evaluation if you see a bloated appearance. If your regular veterinarian’s office is closed, bring you’re your dog immediately to the closest Animal ER. As you’ll learn in my Help! What Should I do If My Dog Bloats? article, there sadly isn’t anything you can safely or effectively do at home in these cases, immediate veterinary attention is the most important thing.  

I know that's a lot to digest (no pun intended - honestly). So, this concludes my explanation of the differences between canine bloat, torsion, and Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus. I hope you are now fully AWARE of these conditions. If you’re wondering if your dog is at risk, the short answer is that any dog can suffer from GDV. Read Is My Dog at Risk for Canine Bloat, Torsion, and GDV to learn more about the different factors that may increase your dog’s risk. Also check out these other articles for the signs you may see if your dog “bloats” and what you should do if your 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.

Topics: Stomach Bloat, Torsion, Dog Emergency, GDV, Bloat