Gastric dilation torsion, or bloat, is not common in dogs – but it is often fatal, as the winner of our Best Family Gundog award discovered, sadly. David Tomlinson describes the symptoms

Bloat in dogs is uncommon but often fatal, as the winner of The Field’s Best Family Gundog award discovered last year when he sadly lost picking-up golden retriever, Charlie. David Tomlinson describes the symptoms and stresses the need to act quickly.

Do your homework before acquiring your next working dog and always teach yourself about the possible health risks. Cocker spaniels are hugely popular in the field, but there is a downside. Read working cocker spaniel health problems.


One of the most enjoyable tasks I undertook last year was judging The Field’s inaugural Gundog Awards. Even better than the judging was meeting the winners at a celebration lunch at Burghley in September. I’ve always been a fan of golden retrievers, so was particularly pleased to pat David Beckenham’s beautiful four-year-old golden, Charlie (pictured), winner of The Best Family Gundog award. Show-bred Charlie had been trained successfully as a proper picking-up dog, becoming a favourite with the guns and beaters, yet remaining a much-loved family pet.

Sadly, I had an email from a distraught Beckenham in November: “We lost Charlie on Saturday evening as a result of bloat. I rushed him to the emergency vet and he was operated on but they were unable to save him. As you can imagine, I’m devastated. Charlie was my first working gundog and was enjoying his best season yet. We would have been out picking up again on Saturday.

“I put the sad news on Twitter (where we had just over 2,000 followers) and have been surprised by how many people know nothing about bloat. If there is anything you can do to try and raise awareness of the illness I would be so grateful, as if it saved even one dog’s life it would bring some comfort. I was aware of the risk of bloat but am not sure if there was anything I could have done to prevent what happened. My dogs have anti-gulp food bowls and I always allow an hour between food and exercise but, who knows, maybe if I had taken him to the vet half an hour earlier? I will never know.”

The principal reason dog owners know little about bloat is because it’s uncommon. However, it’s a potential killer that every dog owner should be aware of. Curiously, the causes of bloat are still not properly understood. The Kennel Club’s website (which covers this and other canine health problems admirably) explains that bloat, or gastric dilation torsion (GDT), occurs when the stomach twists and then fills with gas, though this may happen the other way round, for no one really knows.


There are two potential triggers for bloat. According to the KC, “the first is anxiety. Animals (including humans) usually swallow more air when they are anxious. This is known as aerophagia (literally eating air) and it is usually seen in stressed, kennelled dogs. The constant intake of air causes the stomach to balloon in size, which changes the abdomen’s normal organ layout.

“The second suspect is diet. If dogs are moved onto very fermentable foodstuffs that produce gas at abnormal rates, the stomach can struggle and not deal with the gas efficiently by burping or passing it into the intestines. Either way, the dog is now bloated, which is an emergency in itself even if not one requiring surgery. If this inflated stomach twists, however, the situation rapidly changes from serious to catastrophic.”

Recognising bloat isn’t difficult. The dog will almost certainly have a visibly swollen stomach and it will also be drooling, panting excessively, even walking around unable to settle. It may also be trying to vomit or defecate but without success. As the stomach becomes more and more distended with gas it puts increasing pressure on the diaphragm, causing breathing problems. Additionally, the pressure cuts off the return blood flow to the heart. The dog’s stomach will feel as taut as a drum skin, while the animal might well try and bite its own abdomen.

A dog displaying any of these symptoms should be rushed to a vet as quickly as possible, preferably within 60 minutes. Any delay is likely to be fatal. One reason that time is so important is that the twist can stop the gastric blood supply resulting in the death of the dog’s stomach wall (necrosis). This in turn can lead to perforation and fatal peritonitis.

Even if the dog is operated on immediately success is not assured, as invasive surgery is required and dogs with bloat are a high anaesthetic risk. The operation requires the vet to open the abdomen surgically and untwist the stomach. The stomach is then sutured to the body wall to prevent it from twisting again in a process called a gastropexy. Sometimes the spleen has to be removed, and possibly part of the stomach if the twisting is severe.

Though bloat can occur in any breed, it is much more commonly seen in large, deep-chested dogs such as boxers and great danes. Of the sporting breeds, setters and Weimaraners are most susceptible, as are labradors. It’s rare in young dogs but is more common in middle-aged males.

Among the recommendations to reduce the risk are feeding several small meals a day and avoiding dry food. Trying to reduce stress, especially around feeding time, is important, as is allowing a lengthy interval between a main meal and exercising. The chances are that you will never encounter bloat but if you do you will be prepared.