When veterinarians see a dog dry heaving all of their internal emergency bells go off. Dry heaving is a sign of one of most dreaded conditions in veterinary medicine known as gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV), colloquially called “bloat.” GDV is one of the rare conditions where immediate surgery is required for a dog’s survival—and even with surgery survival is not guaranteed.
But how do you know if your dog’s dry heaving is a sign of this serious, life-threatening condition or if something else is to blame? Let’s take a closer look so you know how to act quickly if necessary.
What is Dry Heaving in Dogs?
Dry heaving itself is not dangerous to your dog. Dry heaving is when an animal tries to vomit (heave) but nothing is produced. It may sound like a loud retch, a burp, or as if the animal can’t catch his breath.
It looks like a dog is vomiting with abdominal effort—you can see a wave of muscle contraction that begins in the deep abdomen and progresses towards the stomach and diaphragm.
It is more common in large, deep chested dogs including Great Danes, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds. Sometimes dogs may spit out foamy saliva when dry heaving but it is important to distinguish between that and true vomitus (expelled stomach contents). Dry heaving may occur as an episode, with multiple dry heaves that come on suddenly
Dogs who are reported to dry heave frequently, constantly, or continually over time are more likely having a different kind of episode that is not true dry heaving. Dry heaving can be easily confused with vomiting, gagging, coughing, and reverse sneezing.
Dog Dry Heaving Vs. Vomiting
Vomiting and dry heaving look the same except that when dogs dry heave there is no material that comes out from their mouth. Even a small amount of stomach fluid is enough to consider it vomiting. Stomach fluid may be clear to bright yellow and be foamy or not.
Dry Heaving Vs. Gagging
When gagging, dogs show no abdominal effort. Instead the effort is in the chest. Gagging may produce a small amount of foamy saliva in addition to whatever was caught in your dog’s throat. It might sound like your dog has a hairball.
Dry Heaving Vs. Coughing in Dogs
Coughing is also usually produced from a dog’s chest. However, abdominal effort may begin if the cough becomes severe. Dogs usually keep their head down when coughing. When dogs have coughing spells they may hack or have a dry retch, so it is important to pay attention to the whole episode to distinguish it from dry heaving.
Dog Dry Heaving Vs. Reverse Sneezing
Reverse sneezing is more common in small dogs. It sounds like the dog is struggling to catch his breath and there may be snorts or wheezes mixed in. It gets its name because reverse sneezing sounds like a dog is trying to inhale a sneeze. Some people express their concern that their dog keeps gagging when it is in fact reverse sneezing. Reverse sneezing is usually associated with inhaled allergens or irritants such as pollen.
Fortunately true dry heaving in dog is rare because it is a sign of a potentially very serious condition.
Causes of Dry Heaving in Dogs
Dry heaving occurs when a dog attempts to vomit but is unable to produce any material. Any illness that can cause vomiting in dogs can theoretically also cause dry heaving.
- Gastrointestinal discomfort
- Obstructions (for example tumors or ingested foreign material)
- Toxin ingestion
- Being over excited or over exercised
- Eating too fast
However, the most serious cause of dry heaving in dogs is Gastric Dilatation Volvulus (GDV). This is when the stomach fills with hair and then flips over on itself. It is commonly called “bloat” because the stomach is bloated with air. This bloating causes dry heaving because the dog is trying to expel air from their stomach but is unable to.
The outflows from the stomach to both the esophagus and the intestines are cut off so the gas is trapped. The trapped air can eventually put enough pressure on large blood vessels to prevent adequate circulation and on the diagram to prevent normal breathing.
GDV is a very painful and dangerous condition. The torsion of the stomach cuts off blood supply to some areas of the stomach as well as the spleen.
If this condition is not treated immediately it is very likely to be fatal. Delaying treatment for even several hours can lead to irreparable damage to your dog’s stomach and spleen.
Diagnosing Causes of Dry Heaving in Dogs
If you suspect your dog is dry heaving you should call your veterinarian or an emergency veterinary clinic right away. This will allow them to talk to you about what you are seeing and determine whether your dog needs to be evaluated as an emergency. It will also allow them to prepare for your arrival so that your dog can be stabilized immediately at the clinic.
Dogs with reported dry heaving immediately be taken for X-rays to determine whether they have GDV. There are very characteristic changes to the shape and size of the stomach that your veterinarian will look for on those X-rays. Bloodwork will then be performed to assess the damage to metabolic function and internal organs.
Dog Dry Heaving Treatment
If GDV is confirmed your dog will receive intravenous fluids (IV fluids) and will have their stomach decompressed using a small catheter placed directly into the stomach. Decompression is not resolution, it is just one important step to stabilizing the dog so that he has the best chance of survival. He may be given anti-nausea medication and pain control while your veterinarian discusses treatment with you.
If GDV is confirmed to be the cause of your dog’s dry heaving, your veterinarian will discuss emergency surgery with you. The cost of this surgery is in the $2,500-$4,500 range depending on where you live and other factors relating to your dog.
If the dog was found not to have GDV then dry heaving will likely be initially treated with anti-nausea medication and fluid supplementation. Additional treatment will depend on the specific cause of your dog’s dry heaving and how ill the dog is overall. Determining the specific cause may require diagnostic testing including bloodwork, urinalysis, x-rays, and abdominal ultrasound.
If the cause of your dog’s dry heaving is an obstruction then the treatment may be surgical. Removal of foreign material can be done on an emergency basis however addressing an obstruction caused by a tumor requires additional diagnostic testing and treatment planning.
For other causes of dry heaving, medical therapy may be sufficient. Hospitalization may be recommended depending on the dog’s other symptoms and the severity of his illness.
How to Prevent Dry Heaving in Dogs
Not all causes of dry heaving are preventable just as not all causes of vomiting are preventable. However there are important steps you can take to reduce the risk of your dog developing GDV. Taking these steps does not fully eliminate the risk of GDV but can greatly reduce the risk.
Slow your dog’s eating. A cause of dry heaving or retching that can be prevented is eating too quickly. Slowing your dog down can be accomplished in many ways. An easy way is to feed in a slow feeder or puzzle bowl. These come in a variety of styles and levels of difficulty and are available at most pet stores both in-person and online. You can also split your dog’s food into multiple meals instead of one feeding.
Keep your dog calm after eating. Do not allow your dog to vigorously exercise for at least 60 minutes (1 hour) after eating.
Consider preventative surgery. A prophylactic surgical procedure called a gastropexy may be appropriate for your dog if he is at high risk for GDV due to his breed, body shape, or lifestyle. In this procedure a veterinarian will suture the lower part of the stomach in place so that it is not mobile enough to flip on itself. While this may not prevent all cases of GDV, studies do indicate that it greatly reduces occurrence in high-risk dogs. Gastropexy can be performed by your primary veterinarian
Dry heaving in dogs is a sign of a life threatening condition in dogs and therefore should always be taken seriously. Call a veterinarian immediately if your dog is dry heaving.