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Published: Jul 30, 2012

Large, deep-chested dogs may suffer from stomach bloat—a condition in which the stomach fills with air and can be seen as a distention of the belly just behind the ribs.  Although it may not seem like it, bloat in dogs is potentially life-threatening and the animal should be taken to a veterinarian right away if this occurs.

In many cases, a dog with a bloated stomach will simply return to normal in a short while, as humans do when they are bloated. However, in some instances the bloated stomach may be a sign of gastric dilatation and volvulus, or GDV. This is where the stomach bloats and expands to the point that it begins to twist inside the body, potentially blocking both the entrance and exit to the stomach. Unless a vet intervenes with surgery, this will eventually be fatal.

It can be difficult for pet owners to tell the difference between harmless bloating and GDV. An x-ray or other diagnostic test is needed to confirm GDV, which is why owners of larger dogs need to play it safe. If an owner notices their dog seems uncomfortable or exhibits labored breathing after eating or exercising, or if their dog's stomach appears bloated or their dog is wretching or trying to vomit without success, it's best to bring her to the vet as soon as possible and ensure nothing harmful is happening. If the dog collapses after her stomach has begun bloating, treat it as an emergency situation and seek help right away.

Big dogs with deeper chests are at a higher risk for GDV. In fact, VCA Animal Hospitals reports that dogs over 100 pounds have about a 20 percent chance of suffering from GDV at some point in their life. Owners of Great Danes, Saint Bernards, Doberman pinschers, Gordon setters, Irish setters, Weimaraners, standard poodles, Basset hounds and other large dogs should be on the lookout for GDV. However, small dogs are not completely in the clear - bloating has been reported even in Chihuahuas.

Doctors don't know exactly what causes this potentially life-threatening problem in dogs, but some studies have shown certain risk factors. Dogs who eat only one meal a day, consume their food rapidly, or vigorously exercise after eating may increase their chance of GDV. The condition also tends to occur more commonly in older dogs and those with a close family member who has had bloat.

If detected early enough and surgery is successful, the prognosis is generally good for dogs with GDV. As GDV has been known to recur in dogs who have had it in the past, veterinarians standardly perform a surgical technique to attach the stomach to the abdominal wall, which will prevent the stomach from twisting in the future.