The Dangers of Bloat and a Happy Ending for a Dog named Chaos

From the Emergency Vet: The Dangers of Bloat

(And a Happy Ending for a Dog Named Chaos)

By Joe Musielak, DVM, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital’s Small-Animal Emergency Department

At 3 a.m. on a recent Sunday, the emergency department at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital performed life-saving surgery on a dog named Chaos.

Chaos, a golden retriever, has many fans around the world. An award-winning show dog, Chaos also participates in agility training (he has a lot of energy, so needed a job!) and fieldwork.

Chaos rocking and rolling through an agility course!

In the ring, Chaos has won the Best of Breed at two National Specialties and Best Opposite Sex to his daughter at a third National Specialty. Tonya Struble of Rush Hill Golden Retrievers is Chaos’ owner and handler. (Read more about Chaos, including his offspring, and see some beautiful photos:

So back to that Sunday morning. What brought Chaos to the PVH emergency room? Tonya rushed him to PVH because she noticed Chaos had a distended abdomen and was trying to vomit. Chaos then underwent an emergency five-hour surgery that involved bloat, removal of a foreign object and resection of the stomach.

Luckily, Chaos’ surgery was successful. His worldwide fan club followed his progress. Tonya wrote to PVH and Chaos’ veterinarian team: “I just want you to know how appreciative I am that you were able to save his life and let me bring him home. Thanks for all the care that you gave Chaos, and for the patience that everyone had with me during this time. I will never be able to thank you enough.”    

As Tonya explains, what Chaos went through was “unbelievable and frightening to both him and her.” In order to educate pet owners about bloat and its complications, we put together the information below. Even the most educated owner may not be aware of the dangers of bloat, and, as Chaos’ story illustrates: With bloat, every second counts.

What Is Bloat? Who Gets It?

Bloat (or torsion) usually affects large-breed dogs with deep chests; however, we can see bloat in any breed and even very rarely in cats. Bloat is known by many names, the most common of which are GDV (for gastric dilatation volvulus) and twisted stomach. Bloat is an acute condition that requires immediate veterinary care. Waiting even an extra hour can dramatically increase the chances of death.

Bloat Symptoms

Symptoms an owner may recognize usually consist of, but are not limited to:

  • the pet attempting to vomit without producing anything (nonproductive retching), and
  • a swollen (distended) abdomen.

Bloat Causes, and What Happens

The causes of bloat are thought to involve multiple factors, but they come down to this: some sort of insult to the abdomen that causes a change in the function of the stomach. When this change occurs, the animal’s ability to move food in its normal direction (from the mouth toward the intestines and eventually the anus) is disrupted.

This can result in the contents of the stomach producing abnormally large amounts of gas and fluid, which it cannot move. The inability to function in a normal manner results in the stomach filling with food, gas or liquids to the point where it may “twist” on itself.

Once the stomach twists on itself, both the inflow point (esophagus) and the outflow point (pylorus) become obstructed – pinched off. At this point, the contents of the stomach have nowhere to go and the stomach continues to swell.

This causes intense pain and a shock-like condition for your pet. Imagine the worst case of gas you have ever had … and it keeps getting worse until you are unconscious, rather than subsiding with a good burp or a trip to the bathroom.  

Next, the blood supply to the organ becomes compromised, and metabolic poisons begin to build up in the pet. This happens very quickly as the stomach loses its oxygen supply. (Think about how, when you put a tight string or rubber band around your finger, it will turn purple. If you leave the rubber band or string around your finger, eventually the finger will become necrotic – it will die – and fall off if the string is not removed.) The stomach is much less resilient than your finger. The stomach can start to die in only a few hours.

Bloat Treatment

There are no home treatments for this condition. Surgery is usually indicated. There are some cases where a dog bloats on food, liquids or air, and if a tube can be passed, the food and the air or liquid can sometimes be removed. These cases are in the vast minority. Once a dog bloats, if surgery is not performed, the dog will likely bloat again and the stomach may twist. X-rays and surgical exploration confirm the presence of a twisted stomach.

Bloat is a life-threatening condition. Expensive treatment will be involved. Your pet will typically need to spend a few days in the hospital – in some cases, a week or more. It all depends on how much damage has been done by the torsion and your pet’s baseline health.

What Happens During Bloat Surgery

Surgical repair consists of emptying the stomach under general anesthesia and “untwisting” it from the inside. The next step is to attach the stomach to the inner body wall so it is much less likely to twist in the future. Your pet can still bloat after the stomach is sutured to the body wall – but the stomach is much less likely to twist. The only time we see a recurrence of torsion is if the attachment of the stomach to the inner body wall breaks down due to trauma or a patient’s poor healing abilities.

While your pet is in surgery, the veterinarian will look for predisposing factors (potential causes), such as tumors, foreign bodies your pet may have eaten unbeknownst to you, and damage to other organs. In many cases, no obvious causes are found.

Your pet’s veterinarian will also attempt to assess the health of the stomach. Sometimes, no matter how quickly you notice a problem and how fast you let the veterinarian get into surgery, we find a necrotic (dying) stomach. Sometimes it is only part of the stomach. If small enough, the damaged part can be removed. Sometimes the entire stomach is affected, and we have to correct the things we can and plan to re-explore the abdomen in a day or so to see if the stomach was able to recover. Sometimes it is necessary to euthanize a pet on the surgery table if there is too much damage, or if widespread diseases such as cancerous tumors are present. Occasionally, even though everything is done correctly, the patient does not survive.

After Bloat Surgery

Once your pet wakes up from surgery, the battle is most definitely not over. Your patient will require intravenous fluids, pain medication, anti-nausea medications, possibly antibiotics and 24-hour monitoring. The monitoring is extremely important. Pets that have suffered a GDV (and some other types of surgical conditions) may develop temporary heart arrhythmias. Sometimes medication is needed in the short term to help control these.

Some pets do not want to eat for quite some time after surgery, and intravenous nutrition becomes necessary. Some pets need plasma or blood transfusions. Blood chemistries will probably need to be rechecked as well, unless your pet is one of those rare animals that starts to eat the day after surgery and is ready to run right out the door.

Bottom line? If you notice any bloat symptoms, take your pet to his or her regular veterinarian or an emergency facility right away. Time is of the essence with this life-threatening condition.  

Dr. Joe Musielak graduated from the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine in 1990. After working in mixed practice for nine years, he became a staff veterinarian for Pilchuck’s small-animal emergency department in 2003, and has a special interest in transfusion medicine and surgery. Dr. Joe, as he prefers to be called, is an active member of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society. He lives with his partner, two dogs and three cats.

Pilchuck’s small-animal emergency department is open 24/7: 360.568.9111.