Gastric Dilation/Volvulus 
(bloat, gastric torsion)

Contributed by Dr. Nan Henderson of Park Veterinary Hospital

Gastric dilation/volvulus (GDV) is a life-threatening disease characterized by a tremendous ballooning (dilation) of the stomach with gas and frothy material. Dilation may be followed by twisting of the stomach (volvulus) that closes both the inlet and outlet of the stomach. As swelling continues, shock develops as the swollen stomach blocks return of blood from the abdomen to the heart. Widespread tissue damage and kidney failure develop and death from respiratory and cardiac arrest soon follows.

While most cases occur in large, narrow and deep-chested dogs, small dogs are occasionally affected. The disorder appears suddenly in apparently healthy dogs. The cause is unknown, although many contributing factors have been suggested. These include:

  • Heredity
  • Ingestion of large meals (though no correlation with specific brands, type of food, or free-choice vs. meal feeding has been shown)
  • Ingestion of large quantities of water
  • Exercising after eating
  • General anesthesia (delays emptying of stomach)
  • Vomiting
  • Stress
The signs of gastric dilation include:
  • General fatigue (possibly collapse)
  • Signs of pain or distress
  • Gums and/or other mucus membranes may be abnormal color:
    • Blue -- from lack of oxygen
    • White -- from shock
    • Dark Red -- from sepsis (severe infection)
  • Possible abdominal distention
  • Arched back
  • Attempting to vomit without success
  • Persistent swallowing/salivating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Restlessness
Diagnosis is made by physical examination and radiography. Immediate treatment is essential -- this is a true EMERGENCY! Irreversible damage can occur in a surprisingly short period of time. For this reason, many affected dogs die before treatment can be administered.

Surgery is necessary in all cases of gastric volvulus, and recovery is often long and intensive. Damage to the heart can cause problems up to several days after surgery. Unfortunately, recurrences are common in some pets. Owners of recovered pets must be especially alert for the early signs of recurrence. 


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