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By Rich Allen DVM with update by Virginia Froehlich DVM  

This article, on Gastric Torsion, is dedicated to the memory of a wolfhound named Roxanne.

Tall, handsome dogs with big chests! Purebred dogs are often subject to specific medical conditions related to their breed, and it’s good to know what these are if you have a purebred dog. Roxanne was a wolfhound. Wolfhounds and other dogs that are tall and have narrow, deep chests, are at some risk of gastric torsion, which is exactly what happened to Roxanne here at the sanctuary last month.

Breeds that come in with stomach torsion most often have narrow deep chests and are over 30 inches at the shoulder. These tall narrow models include wolfhounds, sight hounds, boxers, setters, St. Bernards, and mixes containing these breeds. Any tall dog or very large dog is at some risk.

It’s a bit like colic. You may have experienced the pain and discomfort of gas and heartburn after eating. Most of us are aware of colic conditions in little children and the life threatening condition of colic in horses; but most people seem unaware that a life-threatening colic-like condition happens in large and giant breed dogs.

The accumulation of gas in the stomach of these guys causes more than just discomfort. The gas-filled stomach can actually flip. When a complete flip (gastric torsion) happens there is very little time in which to act. Gastric torsion is one of the most time-dependent medical emergencies that I encounter. There is absolutely no time for waiting if you think this may be your dog’s problem. Go immediately to a veterinary hospital.

This is what happens: the stomach fills with gas and the gas gets caught in a pocket in the stomach and it flips the stomach. This flip may be either partial or a complete flip. The stomach is connected to the spleen, which gets taken with it on the journey. This twists the esophagus (entrance into the stomach) and the duodenum (exit from the stomach). Most devastating to the animal is that along with the stomach the arteries and veins associated with the stomach and spleen are twisted. The twisted arteries and veins release toxins and electrolytes indiscriminately into the bloodstream, immediately sending the dog into shock.

In a full flip, the animal is in severe discomfort and the abdomen is tight and distended. The stomach may also only partially flip and the symptoms may not be as severe. At the veterinary clinic we may want to try to pass a stomach tube. If the tube will pass, the dog may STILL have a torsion. We may want to take x-rays. We may want to do surgery immediately or we may deem that stabilizing the dog first is best. Trust your veterinarian – he or she has seen this before.

Lowering the risk to your dog. To lower the risk of gastric torsion, we need to understand the events that lead to the stomach forming gas in the first place. At risk animals should be fed high quality diets that do not vary. Pick a good maintenance food and stick with it. Avoid treats, especially things that humans eat.

Stomach problems in big dogs often occur after exercise. After exercise they want to go first to the water bowl and drink as much as they can, and then to the food bowl and gobble down a lot of food. This appears to be a setup for gastric gas. Give your dog access to water throughout the day and during the exercise event. Give your dog an adequately long walking cool-down period after heavy running exercises. Do not give your dog access to food until it is completely back to normal respiration. This will prevent the gulping and swallowing of air that may also play a role in the syndrome.

There’s more to learn about gastric dilation and torsion. Procedures at clinics vary, as do recommendations. Consult your veterinarian at your routine exam if you are concerned that your dog may be at risk, and don’t forget to give your giant or large breed dog a big kiss.

Note: Since this article was written, there have been new developments in the understanding of this condition. Best Friends' senior vet Dr. Virginia Froehlich contributed this update.

Bloat or Gastric Dilitation and Volvulus (GDV) is a serious life-threatening condition seen in dogs. It is characterized by distention of the stomach with food and/or air with the momentum of this heavy organ causing the stomach to “flip” upon itself closing both the in-flow and out-flow. The stomach then becomes more and more distended, causing pressure on the large blood vessels of the abdomen, cardiac irregularities, tissue death and toxin release.

There are many theories as to exactly why this whole scenario develops. An older but still accepted theory involves large dogs eating large quantities of food (particularly dry food), eating fast and ingesting air, then drinking large quantities of water, then exercising. This causes the stomach to become very heavy and “swing” inside the abdomen of the larger deep-chested dogs. The pendulous momentum then sends the stomach in a twisting motion over and around itself.

Since some dogs that are discovered to have GDV do not have a stomach that is excessively full of food or water, newer theories have been adopted. One of these is that (particularly in older dogs), the stomach’s regular contractions become weaker and air and food can remain in the stomach longer than is normal, causing the stomach to become heavy and causing the twisting event. Still another theory proposes that, particularly in older dogs, the spleen can become enlarged due to congestion or neoplasia. Since the spleen is so closely associated anatomically with the stomach, it can be involved in causing the stomach to become heavy, pendulous, and then twist.

Regardless of the cause of the twisting, gastric dilatation and volvulus in the dog is a life-threatening medical emergency. In order for there to be a chance of a good outcome, aggressive medical care must be obtained without delay.

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