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Food Bloat in Pets

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You know that feeling of polishing off your third plate at Thanksgiving dinner, when you lean back in your chair, rub your full stomach, and swear you won’t be able to eat again for a week? Well, food bloat in pets is sort of like that — minus the silverware and cornucopia centerpiece — with potentially more serious consequences. So let’s dig in and talk about food bloat in pets and what pet parents need to know!

What is food bloat? 

Food bloat is a condition in which a pet’s stomach has become over-filled and distended after the pet eats a large amount of food all at once. The majority of food bloat cases happen because a pet ransacked bag of dog or cat food and then gorged to capacity (or beyond!) However, food bloat can also occur if a pet gets into the trash or eats a lot of human food.

What are the symptoms of food bloat? 

Pets with food bloat tend to get large, distended – and sometimes painful – bellies. These pets often mope around like a beached whale or pace because they’re too uncomfortable to lie down. Other common symptoms include vomiting, retching without producing any vomit, vocalizing or whining, diarrhea, and exaggerated breathing.  

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How is food bloat diagnosed? 

A veterinarian diagnoses food bloat by taking x-rays of the abdomen. X-rays allow the veterinarian to see inside the pet’s big, full stomach – and we can sometimes even see a “kibble” pattern! X-rays also allow the veterinarian to rule out other possible causes of the pet’s symptoms such as foreign object obstruction, Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV), masses, etc.  It’s actually common for veterinarians to diagnose food bloat based off of the x-rays, even before the pet’s owner realizes the food bag or container has been raided! In addition to x-rays, the veterinarian may check bloodwork to evaluate electrolytes and organ function, as well as guide the best treatment plan.

How is food bloat treated? 

Treatment for food bloat can vary, depending on the specific case. If it’s safe to do so, the veterinary team can induce vomiting to help lessen the load on the pet’s stomach. However, if the pet only consumed food – not packaging or other material – it will eventually be digested. Another concern is dehydration. While the pet tries to digest and move all of the food through, he can quickly become dehydrated. Pets with food bloat usually need fluid therapy, anti-nausea medications, and sometimes, light pain medications. Often, additional x-rays are used to monitor progression of the food and the pet’s response to treatment. Food is often withheld for 12-24 hours to allow the pet’s stomach to digest – but don’t worry, the pet won’t get hungry! 

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What happens if my pet does not receive treatment? 

In addition to the risk of dehydration, pets with food bloat can also experience pancreatitis or an obstruction caused by the food’s packaging. Most dangerously though, food bloat can sometimes lead to Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV), a life-threatening condition where the stomach twists and emergency surgery is needed. Treatment is advised to help monitor and treat symptoms and to rule out more grave diagnoses like GDV.  

How can food bloat be prevented? 

To help prevent food bloat, containers of both pet & human food should be stored where your pet can’t get at themPet food bags can be enclosed within plastic totes; for an added level of safety, put totes in a closet or pantry with a lock or latch. We also advise securing all trash cans. If you discard of a large amount of food, remove the trash bag immediately and place in an outside trash bin. Pets are very clever as well as determined! Some may chew through a weak container or use paws and noses to open cabinet doorsso be diligent when pet-proofing your home! 

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If you caught your pet overindulging on food or notice your pet has a large, distended stomach, contact your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital! They can help determine the best course of action based on how much your pet ate and/or their symptoms.

Melanie Neufeld, DVM, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota


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