Ask the Edmonds Vet: When a gassy stomach can be fatal in dogs

By Dr. David Gross

We just rescued a Great Dane from our local shelter and they told us large breeds of dogs get something called gastric dilatation and die. What is it and what causes it?

This condition can afflict any breed of dog but it seems to be most prevalent in Great Danes, St. Bernards, Weimaraners, Irish setters and Gordon setters. Dogs with a deep chest, dogs fed a large meal once daily, older dogs and dogs related to other dogs that have suffered from this condition are at higher risk. A study published in 2006 incriminates dry dog foods that list oil or animal fat as one of the first four label ingredients (high concentrations) as predisposing dogs to a higher risk.

Any dog that eats rapidly and is overfed, or gains access to food on its own (gets into the bag of food while nobody is around), can end up with an over-distended stomach and lots of gas. When this happens, the gas can accumulate rapidly and this gas itself can prevent both the gas and the food from leaving the stomach. Predictably, gas continues to accumulate and a severe stomachache ensues.

Dogs with a stomachache may look anxiously at their abdomen, stand and stretch, drool, and retch without vomiting. Most of the time, the dog will vomit up the excess food and gas thus relieving the problem but if unable to do so gastric dilatation can occur. When this happens, the abdomen distends as the stomach distends with gas and, as the problem progresses, the dog may start to pant and get progressively weak and even collapse. If not relieved, the distended stomach can put enough pressure on the diaphragm and lungs to result in hypoxia (lack of enough oxygen), prevent the return of blood from the abdomen, stop blood flow to the stomach and this can result in rupture of the stomach wall. Another possible complication is a twisting of the stomach called volvulus. This results in an acute emergency that requires surgical intervention. Mortality from gastric dilatation and volvulus is about 15 percent.

If your pet is suffering from gastric dilatation, you need to get her/him/it to your veterinarian post haste. If caught early, the condition may be relieved by passing a stomach tube and releasing the gas. If this does not do the trick, your veterinarian will have to take X-rays and probably do some laboratory blood tests to establish a definitive diagnosis. It may be necessary to stabilize the patient with intravenous fluids and oxygen therapy prior to doing surgery.

Even if there is no gastric volvulus, it is usually necessary to do exploratory abdominal surgery to determine if the stomach is twisted or not and untwist it if necessary. If the volvulus persists, it interrupts the blood supply to the stomach and the tissues deprived of blood die. Gangrene of the stomach is not habit forming. While doing the surgery, the surgeon will fully explore the abdomen and will ascertain the viability (normality) of the stomach wall, the spleen and other abdominal organs. Before closing the abdomen, the surgeon will fix (suture) the stomach to the body wall to prevent it from twisting in the future.

There are at least four different techniques described to fix the stomach to the body wall (gastropexy). Your veterinary surgeon will use the technique that has proven to be most successful in her or his experience.

Your veterinarian might recommend prophylactic (preventive) gastropexy for dogs with relatives that have had the problem, breeds with greater risk, or dogs that have suffered gastric dilation and recovered without surgery. Laparoscopic (use of a fiberoptic device for visualization) and other minimally invasive techniques have been described to accomplish this.

Dr. David Gross graduated from Colorado State University’s veterinary school in 1960 and was in private practice for 10 years. He enrolled in graduate school at Ohio State University earning a M.Sc. degree in 1972 and a Ph.D. degree in 1974. He retired in 2006 as Professor and Head of Veterinary Biosciences, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Gross is a Fellow of the Cardiovascular Section of the American Physiological Society. During his academic career, he published over 90 papers in refereed scientific journals and over 100 abstracts in proceedings of scientific meetings.

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