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Many dog owners have a strong affection for the larger dog breeds. For some, the bigger the better is the rule. Besides having a higher grocery bill, large and giant breed dogs are unique in another way. Lima Police K-9 Officer Aron reminded me of this recently when he developed a life-threatening emergency one evening.

Aron, a 90-pound German Shepherd, along with three fellow K-9 officers, has done his share to provide safety and service to the City of Lima. As a result of the closeness that these canine and human officers share, the handlers have a keen sense of when something is very wrong with their canine partners.

Such was the case late one evening when Investigator Jason Bugh discovered that Aron was in trouble as he began wretching persistently. Bugh quickly realized that Aron was also having extreme abdominal discomfort. The next vital realization the handler had was that Aron's abdomen was beginning to bloat.

K-9 handlers receive frequent training, including first aid and emergency care for their dogs. Having known Bugh for a long time, I have always found him to be a conscientious and perceptive dog owner. So when he paged me just after midnight and expressed that he thought Aron might die, I knew he was right.

From Bugh's description of Aron's symptoms, it was clear that his partner was experiencing gastric dilatation and possible volvulus, better known as "bloat." This condition is dreaded by many large or giant dog breed owners because its symptoms are fast, furious and deadly.

Bloat occurs in large, deep-chested dogs when their stomachs fill with food, fluid or air. The stomach of these dogs is C-shaped and often pendulous in their large abdomens. Over-filling of this type of stomach, especially if the distention is followed by activity, can result in bloating and swinging of the organ within the abdomen. With enough swaying motion, the stomach then flips over, causing obstruction of the stomach at both ends.

This sets off a chain of events that quickly become life-threatening, ranging from progressive distention of the stomach with air, to torsion of the spleen, decreased cardiac output, shock and death. Because of the rapidity of these events, treatment needs to be immediate and aggressive, and usually consists of surgery to correct the stomach distention and torsion.

Depending on the duration and severity of the torsion, the dog may also need to have its spleen and/or parts of the stomach or intestines removed if there has been compromise of the blood supply to these organs. The mortality rate associated with bloat may be as high as 28 percent, but if diagnosed and treated swiftly, dogs can survive.

Aron was very fortunate that his handler acted fast. I advised him to take Aron immediately to a 24-hour emergency surgery service provided by the Northeast Indiana Veterinary Emergency Services in Fort Wayne. A highly skilled veterinary team corrected his bloat and removed his compromised spleen.

As I reflect upon Aron's crisis, I want to prevent others from repeating his experience. Aron most likely developed bloat because he was on a feeding regimen of four cups of food fed once daily. This is a common practice for police dogs whose jobs make it inconvenient to feed them more often. For bloat-prone dog breeds, once daily feeding and feeding from elevated platforms definitely sets them up for failure.

While the absolute cause of bloat is unknown, I have always taught pet owners who own large breed, deep-chested dogs to feed their pets at least three smaller meals daily. I also instruct them to never exercise their dogs for at least an hour after eating or drinking. Even swallowing a lot of air during barking or play can contribute to a gastric dilatation episode.

Some large breed dog owners may choose to have their dog's stomach "tacked" to the inside abdominal wall at the time of neutering in an effort to prevent bloat. This surgery, called "gastropexy," can prevent the stomach from twisting, but it will not stop it from bloating.

While Aron's story has a happy ending as he continues to improve after surgery, I hope to never receive that dreaded after-hours bloat phone call again. If you own a large, deep-chested dog breed, talk to your veterinarian about bloat prevention and know what action you should take in the event that it happens to you.

Dr. Bonnie Jones is a veterinarian and co-owner of Delphos Animal Hospital which she operates with her husband, Dr. John H. Jones. She was the valedictorian and Outstanding Senior Clinician of The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 1985. Questions may be sent to Dr. Jones at Delphos Animal Hospital, 1825 E. Fifth St., Delphos, OH 45833.

Dr. Bonnie Jones: Does your pet need a cane?
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