by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter, late 1998
WARNING: If you’re a dog owner, please read on. The information I’m about to share may save your dog’s life — and it’s not generally known to most dog owners. I should also warn that some readers may find the following graphic or disturbing — I don’t recommend reading this one while you eat. If you don’t own a dog, you might want to stop reading now. If you’re a dog owner, read on and help save your dog’s life.
We came home a few months ago and found one of our dogs dead. Dallas, our beautiful purebred German Shepherd, was laying still on the living room floor, her belly severely distended and a trickle of blood flowing from her nose. Her eyes stared peacefully into space.
Dallas was our joy; she was the obnoxious one, the eight year old puppy with so much love to give. Definitely high maintenance and not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree by a long shot, but a very loyal and loving dog. Our buddy.
What hurt most about her death was that it was so unexpected. We’d adopted her years ago, shortly after she’d been hit by a car, and nursed her back to health. After that, we had to nurse her through various other health problems that she developed. Dallas had come through so much in her short life, but she was finally very healthy. We really loved her.
To not know why she died would be unbearable — was it something we had or hadn’t done?
Around 2:30 in the morning, I brought her to the 24 hour emergency veterinarian in Walpole. While seeing the doctor write “DOA” on her chart really chilled me, an autopsy gave us the answers we sought. Dallas died from Gastric Dilation and Volvulus Syndrome (GDV) which is also called “twisting of the stomach.”
What we found most disturbing is that the four veterinarians we spoke with afterward basically told us the same thing, that they know about this condition but don’t really discuss it with dog owners because it can be so unpredictable. Why discuss something that probably won’t ever happen? Maybe that is true, but we wish that we had been told about it. Although GDV can be unpredictable, there are certain breeds of dogs that are more at risk than other. There are things that any dog owner could watch out for and minor changes that they can make to help in preventing GDV.
A medical paper we were given by one veterinarian notes that, “Most metropolitan emergency clinics see these cases frequently.” German Shepherds, Great Danes, Saint Bernard, Rottweilers, Labrador retrievers, and Alaskan Malamutes are most predisposed to getting this condition, although many other large-chested dogs are also in danger. The age of the dog is apparently not a factor.
For any dog owner, it’s important that you know about GDV. It’s a life threatening disease, and often strikes without warning in otherwise healthy dogs. A certain set of conditions might trigger GDV one day but not another. If the stomach cannot be emptied, this may cause it. Too much exercise immediately following feeding, or extremely large intakes of food may cause it. But stress can also cause it. ANY intense activity can cause it.
Although GDV could occur for no apparent reason in certain dogs, and could even be triggered by unpreventable stress, there are certain factors that tend to lead to GDV. The number one contributing factor in causing GDV is how you feed your dog. The weight of the food or water in the dog’s stomach can sometimes cause the stomach to twist. Exercising your dog before or after they eat, or if the dog eats too much or drinks too much water, could cause the stomach to overturn on itself, and twist.
Once GDV starts, the stomach balloons tremendously with gas and other materials. The dog’s stomach dilates and twists around its axis, causing catastrophic and usually fatal damage. Food or fluid accumulates in the stomach, and this is usually accompanied by blockages in the two tracts leading into and out of the stomach. The stomach may twist just a little or completely around, but this causes a destructive cascade to the dog’ internal organs. The blood supply to the stomach is cut off (and the food has nowhere to go). The spleen enlarges. Blood supply to the heart and lungs is decreased, causing hypoxia (a lack of oxygen) to other organs, and shock.
If the dog is lucky, it will die of shock to the brain before every organ in its body becomes affected. The destruction is widespread and if untreated, fatal.
This process takes anywhere between 2 to 8 hours to kill the dog — we have no way of knowing how long Dallas suffered, but pray it was a short time.
GDV is unpredictable. Dallas had been seen by her vet only two weeks before. Her doctor was very happy with her health — there was no indication anything was wrong. For Dallas, the day she died was identical to a thousand others in her life. So why this day? Why now?
On the morning she died, Dallas drank a lot of water, then she ate her food as well as some of the other dog’s food. She’d done this many times before, but perhaps this feeding was the triggering factor on that day.
We cannot help wonder; if we’d been aware of GDV, would we would have done something that might have prevented this from happening to her? We had just had her spayed, and if we had been aware of GDV, we would have asked the vet to tuck in her stomach at that time. We certainly would have watched her intake of water much more closely, and we never would have fed her after she drank a lot of water. Whether any of this would have helped, we will never know.
Maybe after we left for the day, Dallas might have played with one of our other dogs, or rolled around. We will never be sure of what actually happened to her that day.
So many “maybes.” So many, “I wonder if…” and “If only we’d….”
Bottom line, there are no answers to our questions. Had we come home earlier and found Dallas alive, and had we gotten her medical attention, she might have lived. She might not have.
Unfortunately, chances of GDV survival are low (20-30%) even if the dog is found in time and brought in for this extremely complicated and costly surgery. (Although we were told that Angel Memorial Hospital has more surgeons and is better equipped to handle this type of surgery, and the chances for survival there are somewhat better than at a regular vet.)
But the doctors told us that the surgery involved varies in complexity from case to case. For some dogs, the condition is caught in time and the excess gas is bled out. For others, the dog’s organs are so badly damaged that lengthy surgery is necessary to try to “put the dog’s insides back together.” Even after the surgery, full recovery is still iffy. And even if the dog recovers, it is almost certain that it will suffer from lung and heart problems after that.
Prompt treatment is essential for successful treatment of GDV, and surgery is always necessary. The faster you can get your dog to a vet, the better its chances of survival. Without treatment for GDV, death is a certainty.
But I write all of this not to make you sad or despair. Despite the uncertainties associated with GDV, there are some things you can do to reduce the chances of GDV happening to your dog.
First, don’t overfeed your dog — we all have a tendency to give our dogs too much food (especially as a reward for good behavior). Feed them the recommended amount for their breed and weight. Don’t let them overeat. The same is true of very large quantities of water.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, feed them several times a day — preferably three times. Divide the one meal into smaller portions.
Third, feed them the good stuff. We feed ours “Science Diet.” It’s more expensive, yes
, but has far less fat, is much better for their general health, and doesn’t expand in their stomachs the way the cheap food does. Moisten the food; that way it does not expand inside the stomach.
Fourth, don’t allow the dog to exercise at least two hours before or after eating. It usually takes about two hours for proper digestion. Try not to feed your dog if you are not going to be home for a while after they eat.
Fifth, if your dog is going is to undergo any type of surgery, talk to the vet about the cost of securing the dog’s stomach. If your dog is one of the high risk breeds, stapling the dog’s stomach may be a viable option and it’s worth the extra cost. As it was explained to us, it’s possible to secure a dog’s stomach to help prevent GDV. Talk to your vet about this especially if you have a high risk breed.
Of course, none of this will guarantee the dog will never have GDV. We’ve been feeding our pups the good food for years and not exercising them before or after they eat. But we now feed them several times a day, and watch the portions a little more closely. We will not feed them before we leave the house, and we watch their water intake.
I must add that we are very grateful for the sympathy and support of both Foxboro Animal Hospital and Norton Animal Hospital. Both hospitals have taken such good care of all of our dogs and provided us with detailed information about GDV, and lent a sympathetic ear when we needed it most.
So to conclude, speak to your vet about GDV and other threats to your pet’s health. You can’t eliminate the possibility of GDV, but you can reduce the chances of it happening, and if you suspect GDV or observe swelling of your dog’s belly, get it to an animal hospital immediately.
We miss our Dallas. She was full of energy and made the house a happier place, and now she’s gone. It might’ve been easier if she’d been old, or sick, or hit by a car. But to lose her to something as terrible and unexpected as this — to have her die in a manner in which she most certainly suffered greatly — is very difficult.
We are grateful for having had Dallas in our life and for all of the love that she gave us. We can only hope and pray that we gave her all that she needed while she was here with us, and that she knows just how much she was loved and how much she will be missed.
After Dallas died, I tried several times to write this piece. It went through many revisions. The early drafts were more clinical, and Sue would insist that I also try to convey the human part. For her, we needed to not only tell people about GDV but let them know how special Dallas was. For the two of us, at least for this part of our lives, the dogs are our kids. They’re not “just” dogs. Dallas, for all her quirks, was an extremely loving dog and her death hurt the two of us in a way that only a dog owner can understand.
I sincerely hope that I have struck the balance I sought in this piece — I wanted to tell dog owners about GDV, and also convey my sadness upon losing one of my canine family.
We miss you, Dallas. I hope that this information can save at least one other dog from what you had to go through.