Bloat & Gastric Torsion – A Cautionary Tale

Bank Holiday Monday 28th May 2007 will stay etched sharply in my mind for the rest of my life. My Irish Setter, Geordie, who was just five years old, otherwise known as ‘Cymbeline Fallon By Hooley’ (sire: Twoacres Fergus, dam: Timadon Miss Irresistable) had Gastric Torsion and Bloat. His mother had Bloat when she was 7 weeks in whelp and tragically was later found dead in the whelping box, when the pups were just 14 days old. So I took Geordie, always knowing that because of this, I could never use him at stud and have turned down several offers of stud work for him, being totally honest about my reasons for doing so, as it has always been my policy to be open and honest about any health problems concerning my dogs.

I have always believed that Bloat & Gastric Torsion happens very quickly and is a dire emergency, but this was not my experience. I watch my dogs like a hawk, so am always immediately aware if they are not well, even if it isn’t obvious what the problem is.

Geordie was not himself for 48 hours prior to this happening. If I let him out, he wanted to come striaght back in, but once inside, he just wanted to go back out again. He just couldn’t settle, clinging to me like limpet, feeling very sorry for himself and generally not knowing where to put himself, or what to do. His appetite during this time remained normal……nothing distracts him when there is food around, eating is his favourite activity: unusual for an Irish Setter.

One of the reasons that it wasn’t immediately obvious that Geordie was bloating, was because he has another health problem and his behaviour could have signaled the onset of that quite easily. Geordie started fitting when he was 18 months old, eventually being diagnosed with Idiopathic Epilepsy after an MRI scan of his brain and a spinal tap, at the Animal Health Trust in Newmarket. This ruled out the possibility of the fits being caused by anything other than Epilepsy, such as a brain injury, a virus, a brain disease, or another diseased organ. This is not a particularly pleasant procedure for the dog to experience and is not the first diagnostic test the vets opt for to diagnose this disease, but I felt that it was imperative as, not only hadhis father been used at stud and his mother whelped another litter, but Epilepsy is not the only reason for fitting. As you can imagine, I was absolutely devastated by the diagnosis.

Geordie’s Epilepsy progressively became worse, until he began to have cluster fits, severely enough to need hospitalizing in order to stop him fitting. On Bank Holiday Monday 28th May, Geordie hadn’t fitted for eight months and as any change in his behaviour pattern could indicate that he was going to begin another bout of cluster fits, his behaviour that weekend did not immediately scream Bloat at me.

Geordie did not swell up suddenly, but very gradually, over the course of 48 hours, until by the Monday morning, the day he bloated, I noticed that he seemed fatter than normal and made a mental note to tkae him to the vets after the holiday for a check up. His twice daily medication regime of Epiphen and Potassium Bromide for the Epilepsy, has caused him to steadily gain weight, so he is on a restricted diet and never has titbits, so there was no apparent reason why he should have been getting fatter,

As the morning wore on, he just wouldn’t leave me alone, to the point of becoming a nuisance, though it was obvious that he was desperately trying to tell me something. At this point, he wasn’t huge, just slightly fatter than normal, he was salivating a lot, but the Epilepsy medication often caused him to salivate heavily, so alarm bells didn’t ring. He didn’t seem to be unwell: he just wasn’t his usual bouncy, happy self. It is worth noting that he was not at this time, exhibiting any of the other signs of abdominal discomfort usually associated with Bloat & Gastric Torsion.

PHASE 1 SYMPTOMS

  • SALIVATING
  • ABDOMINAL FULLNESS
  • PACING
  • OANTING
  • RESTLESSNESS
  • STRETCHING
  • GETTING UP & LYING DOWN
  • LOOKING AT ABDOMEN
  • ANXIETY
  • UNSUCCESSFUL ATTEMPTS TO VOMIT

Then a couple of hours later, I noticed that he was trying to be sick without success, though he only did this once and he was uncomfortable when he walked, moving very stiffly on his back legs. It was so similar to watching someone trying to move whilst suffering a severe bout of colic, that this was when my instinct kicked in, BLOAT shouted at me and I called the emergency vet. However, it also occurred to me that he might have an abdominal obstruction, though to my knowledge he hadn’t had anything which could have caused this.

Never before have I been so relieved to discover that my own vet was the duty vet that weekend. Although Geordie’s abdomen, by this time, was enlarged and tight like a drum, his back end being wider than his front end, when viewed from the head down to the tail, the other symptoms of phase two, were not present.

PHASE 2 SYMPTOMS

  • HEAVY SALIVATING
  • ABDOMEN ENLARGED & TIGHT
  • VERY RESTLESS
  • WHINING
  • PANTING CONTINUOUSLY
  • DARK RED GUMS
  • ELEVATED HEART RATE

At weekends and Bank Holidays, the local surgery, which is literally 5 minutes down the road, is closed, we always have to travel to the main surgery, a nine mile drive away. It was a nightmare journey with every red light being against us. Geordie is normally so good in the back of the car, even on his own, just laying down and keeping still, he is so quiet that several times, I have thought that I must have left him behind, as it hasn’t been obvious that he is in the back. This journey was not like that, he spent the entire journey moving around and throwing himself all over the place. The further we traveled, the more acutely aware I became, that he could very well be bloating and having gastric torsion in the back of the car and there was nothing I could do about it. I felt totally helpless and useless, but tried to stay calm for Geordie’s benefit.

My vet arrived at the surgery at the same time as me and as he lives further away than I do, he must have driven like the proverbial clappers, for which I will be eternally grateful. When he examined Geordie, he said he didn’t think he was in dire straights yet and he didn’t think his stomach had started to twist, but there was a possibility that he could actually have torsion later, if he sent him home, so he would have to x-ray him and release the gas anyway, as he was full of it and blown up like a drum. He did note that Geordie had a shaky stance whilst being examined. He is not normally anxious when at the vets. This shakiness was probably due to shock.

My vet wasn’t able to release much of the gas by tubing him, so had to perform abdominal surgery to get rid of the gas. He explained that quite often Bloat creates lots of frothy foam, which blocks the exit from the stomach, making it impossible for the gas to escape. When he opened him up he was astounded to find that the stomach had already started to twist, because Geordie had not presented as if he was in this stage of Torsion.

He stressed that if I hadn’t phoned when I did, then the organs inside would have been damaged by the blood supply being cut off as the stomach twisted. This is what causes the damage and is why some dogs do not recover. I’ve never had a dog with Bloat before, or seen one with it, but knowing my dogs as I do, I instinctively knew that he wasn’t right. I was surprised to hear from my vet that Bloat and Gastric Torsion can also be caused by a blockage, or a tumour, as I didn’t know this could happen.

Geordie’s liver was very swollen, so some was sent away for analysis, but found to be normal. He had a much bigger operation than normal, as his stomach had to be cut open to remove the contents, because my vet couldn’t get them out any other way and his stomach needed to be completely empty to stop him bloating again after surgery, so Geordie was stitched all the way down his abdomen. Whilst Geordie’s stomach has now been stitched down in an effort to reduce the chance of him having Gastric Torsion again, (an operation called a Gastroplexy) my vet was at pains to point out that he could probably bloat again and that if this happened, then it would be a battle between the gas and the internal stitches. Unless the internal stitches break down, he will hopefully not experience Gastric Torsion again, though of course there are no guarantees.

No one knows the definitive reasons, or cause of this dreadful disease, but there are several well known risk factors. In the thirty years that I have owned Irish Setters, I have always been scrupulous about following a strict management code, doing everything that we are supposed to, in order to limit the possibility of this happening, but yet disaster still struck.

As a matter of course I have always:

  • Fed my dogs twice daily, staying with them after they have eaten
  • Used a head-height stand for both water and food dishes
  • Limited the amount of water available immediately after eating
  • Avoided rigorous exercise, stress and excitement for 1 hour before and 2 hours after eating, even making them go to bed if necessary
  • Any diet changes have always been made gradually over a period of 7 days.

After 7 days in intensive care, Geordie was allowed home. So far so good, he is managing to eat without further problems, but now, much to his delight, he is eating four small meals a day, the biscuit being soaked to avoid it swelling and fermenting in his stomach. The vet is very pleased with his progress. He says this is helped by the fact that I got him there so quickly, right at the start of it, so there was no damage to the internal organs. Geordie was lucky that his Bloat and Gastric Torsion was a ‘slow burn’ and not the rip roaring type that we all think of when we hear those dreaded words. Because of his other health problem, it would have been so easy to miss this, or not recognize it for what it was. If I had not followed my instinct and had thought that I would see how he was in the morning, he would have been dead. I am so very grateful for the skills of my vet and the support I received from my friends. Knowing they were all there for me helped tremendously.

© 2007 Michelle Webster

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