Causes and Symptoms of Bloat in Dogs

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Causes and Symptoms of Bloat in Dogs

Bloat is a generic term for distention of the abdomen. This is sometimes used interchangeably with a disease called “Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus,” but a bloated abdomen does not always indicate this condition. It’s important to be able to distinguish between the types and causes of bloat, so be sure to contact a vet if you have any concerns about your dog’s condition. Here we’ll discuss a few common symptoms and causes for the appearance of a bloated stomach in dogs.

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What is Bloat?

In a simple “bloat” situation, a pet has often ingested a large volume of food or other material (such as dog food, bread dough, foreign material, etc), or has a stomach full of air. When this happens, it causes the stomach to stretch like a balloon and can become very uncomfortable for the pet. Although this is quite uncomfortable, it’s not typically a life-threatening condition at this stage. However, due to the stomach enlarging, it can twist on itself inside the abdomen which cuts off the blood supply to numerous organs. When this happens, it is then called gastric dilatation and volvulus (GDV). Because of the loss of oxygen to numerous organs and the damage that is done when the stomach enlarges and twists, this condition is often fatal and requires immediate medical attention.

What breeds are at risk for bloat?

Many people with pets have heard of the dreaded “bloat” in dogs. Bloat most commonly affects large breeds like Great Danes, German Shepherds, Mastiffs, and other deep-chested dogs. However, any dog can become bloated.

Top Causes of Bloat in Dogs

1. Intestinal Parasites

Have you ever heard someone refer to a puppy’s appearance as having a “wormy” belly? That’s because many intestinal parasites cause a bloated appearance to the abdomen of young puppies. These parasites commonly include hookworms and roundworms and are often found by vets on a fecal screening test.

Some symptoms you may encounter are round long worms in the stool or vomiting worms up. You may also notice a poor haircoat, pale gums, or diarrhea (with or without blood). Generally, intestinal parasites are a treatable condition with proper deworming and can be corrected easily if diagnosed early.

2. Dietary Indiscretion and Overeating

Did your puppy get into a large bag of dog food? Did they swallow a ridiculous amount of dirt or ingest your toddler’s Play-Doh? Dogs really do eat some weird things. And if eaten in large enough volume, can cause a significant and very uncomfortable distention of the stomach.

In most cases, the food will be digested (sometimes very slowly). Your puppy may still need supportive care, including hospitalization and IV fluids. In more serious cases, especially in the case of swallowing things like stuffing from a dog bed, or mulch in the yard, surgery may be needed to remove the foreign material.

Other possible causes of an enlarged stomach may include decreased gastrointestinal motility (slow intestinal movement), or even constipation. Your vet will need to examine your dog to determine if additional testing, like blood work or x-rays, are needed to uncover the cause of her bloated stomach.

3. Abdominal Fluid

Another reason why a dog’s abdomen will swell up is ascites, also known as abdominal effusion. This is described as the accumulation of fluid inside the abdominal cavity. Depending on the volume, the dog’s abdomen can increase in size mildly or to the extent where they start to look pot-bellied.

Although less common than the first two causes, fluid in the abdomen can certainly lead to a distended or “bloated” appearance. This can be from a variety of problems including heart failure, low body protein (sometimes due to problems with the liver or kidneys), cancer, and even bleeding from other organs. Free abdominal fluid occurs more commonly in older dogs and is often associated with more severe disease.

Treatment options depend on the underlying cause. Identifying the type of fluid as well as making sure the dog is stable is the first step in diagnosing most underlying conditions.

4. Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV)

Known as “The mother of all emergencies” in veterinary medicine, GDV is an extremely dangerous condition in which the stomach fills with air, and then twists on itself inside the abdomen. This leads to a distended appearance of the dog’s torso and is often accompanied by a distressed appearance, heavy breathing, and attempts to vomit. In some cases, the stomach is filled with air but hasn’t twisted yet (Gastric Dilatation) and imaging is required for further evaluation (like x-rays).

Read more about GDV, here!

5. Hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing's disease)

Hyperadrenocorticism, also known as Cushing’s disease is commonly triggered by hormone-producing tumors in the adrenal glands or pituitary glands. This results in a wide range of clinical signs which can be tricky to detect. Dog's with Cushing's disease typically have a pot-bellied appearance due to weakened abdominal muscles that result from the body's overproduction of cortisol.

What should I do if my dog's stomach looks bloated?

Due to the wide variation in conditions causing a bloated stomach appearance, it’s recommended that medical care be sought early. Your vet will perform an exam and discuss further tests or treatments based on their findings. Early intervention can be lifesaving, and your pet will thank you for it!

Contact your vet or take your dog to an emergency clinic if she is showing any of these signs:

  • Distended, hard abdomen
  • Sudden onset of frequent vomiting, gagging, or retching (nonproductive vomiting)
  • Drooling excessively (hypersalivation)
  • Signs of distress including heavy panting, pacing, or inability to rest
  • Weakness, decreased ability to walk or stand
  • Pale or purple gums

Read more:

Why does my pet need an abdominal ultrasound?

Why does my pet need x-rays?

Why does my pet need a complete blood count?

Need to speak with a veterinarian regarding bloating in your dog or another condition?

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Published: 11/27/2020
Last updated: 3/23/2022
Dr. Sheena Haney, Veterinarian

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