Bloat in Puppies

Bloated dog
Image © ktjacobs27/Flickr

Bloat in puppies goes beyond that cute potbelly tummy common to youngsters after a full meal. A bloated stomach in puppies also may be a sign of intestinal worms. Bloat--or gastric dilation-volvulus (GDV)--is a leading cause of death among large and giant breed puppies.

Bloat develops from the air that rapidly accumulates in the stomach until the puppy’s tummy twists. That traps stomach contents that can’t be expelled either by vomiting, burping, or traveling into the intestines.

Bloat also refers to stomach distention with or without the stomach rotation. The twist cuts off blood circulation to the stomach and spleen, compressing a vein that returns blood to the heart, severely restricting normal blood circulation. That can cause death within hours.

Puppy Bloat Risk

Large and giant breeds have a threefold greater risk than mixed breeds. Nobody really knows for sure why the stomach ultimately rotates. Great Danes have the highest incidence, with about a 40 percent chance they’ll have an episode before they reach age seven. Dogs that are underweight also have an increased risk.

Dr. Larry Glickman of Purdue University conducted a five-year study of nearly 2,000 show dogs, funded by a grant from the AKC Canine Health Foundation, Morris Animal Foundation, and eleven dog breed clubs. His work suggested that deep, narrow chest conformation of certain breeds creates a more acute angle where the esophagus connects with the stomach.

That may be what predisposes them to accumulate gas in their stomach.

That alone isn’t the cause of bloat, though; the puppy's personality also influences risk. Anxious, irritable, nervous, and aggressive characteristics seem to make dogs predisposed. Some research indicates nervous dogs have twelve times higher risk for bloat than calm, happy dogs.

That means proper puppy socialization that reduces nerves and potential for fear can help prevent bloat as your puppy grows up. Dr. Glickman’s study also confirmed that bloat risk increased with advancing age, larger breed size, greater chest depth/width ratio and having a sibling, offspring, or parent with a history of bloat.

Symptoms Of Bloat

The pain of the swollen tummy makes affected pups act restless within just a few hours of eating. They’ll whine and cry, get up and lie down again, and pace in an effort to get comfortable. The dog may strain to vomit or defecate but can’t. You’ll notice the stomach swells and becomes painful. Finally, you’ll see signs of shock—pale gums, irregular or shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat—followed by collapse and death.

Treatment and Prevention

Treatment sounds simple. The puppy’s distended tummy is decompressed by the veterinarian passing a stomach tube down the throat. That allows the gas and stomach contents to empty. Early treatment is key to increase the chance of survival.

A twisted stomach requires surgery to fix, though, and treatment for the shock is also important if your puppy is to survive.

Preventing Bloat

Although bloat can't be completely prevented, predisposing factors can be reduced, particularly with large and giant dog breeds.

Even when the stomach decompresses by stomach tube without surgery, experts recommend gastropexy surgery, which fixes the stomach to the body wall so it can’t twist. That prevents a recurrence of the condition in more than 90 percent of cases.

Gastropexy surgery may be recommended as preventative, particularly in the Great Danes or other pups that have a family history of bloat. It can be done at the same time as spay or neuter surgery. Laparoscopic surgery techniques can make the procedure much less invasive and reduce recovery time. Basically, gastropexy intentionally creates a scar that, when it heals, fixes the stomach to the body wall.

Dr. Glickman’s study showed that limiting water and exercise before and after meals, commonly recommended in the past, did not reduce the incidence of bloat.

Another recommendation, raising the food bowl, actually increased the risk of bloat by about 200 percent.

Multiple meal feedings of smaller quantities is a good idea, though. Don’t give pups a bucket of water they can bury their head in and suck down five gallons at one go.

Eating too fast also increases risk, and to slow the rate of gulping, researchers recommend placing a heavy chain with large links in the bowl with the food. That forces the dog to slow down to eat around the chain. Feeding your puppy with puzzle toys also forces them to slow down and not gulp food.