The topic of gastric torsion — or twisted stomach — kept coming up in my interviews with trainers, breeders and veterinarians. The stories were almost always carbon copies of one another, with a retriever acting perfectly normal in training or hunting, to suddenly acting very different and very sick.
The common belief surrounding gastric torsion is that it occurs when a dog has eaten a meal large enough (or slurped up a lot of water) to weigh the stomach down to the point where post-meal exercise can cause it to flip. This pinches off the ends of the stomach and won’t allow the food to pass through to the digestive tract, or be vomited up.
But there is a reason this ailment goes by different names, including Gastric Dilation-Volvulus (GDV) and bloat — because it isn’t necessarily the result of just a twisted stomach. Bloat, which can occur after a stomach has twisted, can also occur before twisting occurs and be the leading contributor to it.
When a dog’s stomach fills with gas or fluid, bloat occurs. And this might start out as innocently as a dog that is just nervous and breathing heavily, which can lead to aerophagia. This act of excessive air intake is most commonly seen in stressed dogs and it can very quickly lead the stomach to fill up and bloat, effectively altering the layout of the organs. A bloated stomach is a prime candidate for flipping, which means that your dog might not have consumed a calorie in the last 12 hours but could still be in danger of gastric torsion after being subjected to a stressful situation — like kenneling.
No one knows your dog better than you. If you have noticed your dog breathing heavy and almost gulping air, understand that the dog is not only stressed but also filling his stomach up. Any anxiety is always a sign for concern, but anxiety coupled with unsuccessful attempts to vomit should really get your attention.
Something as simple as excessive drooling can signal big problems as well. If you’re not eating a plate of ribs in front of your Lab and he’s got drool dribbling down from his jowls, it might be because he can’t swallow it down due to a twisted stomach. Or, you might notice his guts look a little full and there is just a general discomfort to his body language. All of these can be a sign that something has gone wrong with the plumbing leading into and out of his stomach.
GDV kills dogs, but it doesn’t have to. Early detection is the key to saving your dog’s life. If you suspect a twisted stomach, it’s time to get to a vet clinic. This condition can kill your retriever in multiple ways, which might involve a lack of blood flow to the stomach lining which can effectively kill this crucial organ (it can also cause tears in the stomach lining).
Typically, your veterinarian will assess the situation and decide if it’s possible to slip a tube down the dog’s throat to relieve the pressure that has built up, but this isn’t always possible. If not, they can release the pressure via a needle in the dog’s stomach, but these options are only the start. Invasive surgery is next, which comes with it, its own set of risks depending on a dog’s overall health and how much the condition has progressed.
The Best Medicine
Prevention, obviously, is the best medicine. In addition to just paying attention to your dog’s body language and overall health conditions, there are plenty of things you can do to avoid gastric torsion. Don’t use a raised food/water bowl unless you’ve been advised to do so by your vet.
Make sure your dog eats and drinks a manageable amount of food, and in either case, don’t allow or encourage vigorous exercise after either. A general rule is that GDV is most likely to occur within two hours of feeding, so plan accordingly whether you plan to take your retriever into the duck blind or simply to the neighborhood soccer fields for some dummy work. A little time between feeding and working is all it usually takes to avoid this potentially deadly condition.