I just finished up a round of research on the “mother of all emergencies”: bloat (AKA, gastric dilatation volvulus or “GDV” for short). I spent hours collecting all the papers and tallying up the stats as I prepared for an article that’ll appear in the next issue or two of The Bark (which is, incidentally, the best newsstand glossy to be had on the subject of all things dog). 

In my preparations, I figured I’d take the issue and run with it a little, to rev my engines on the subject, as it were. That’s when I posted on GDV for my DailyVet blog over at PetMD. Interestingly, the subject proved controversial––nothing I ever expected from a staid medical topic like bloat.

But it wasn’t the disease itself that inspired dissent, rather it was all about those recommendations large dog owners are used to hearing when it comes to what they can do to minimize their dogs’ risk. 

You may think you know what to avoid when it comes to bloat, I’d suggested, but maybe you’ve been relying on Dr. Breeder, Dr. Neighbor or Dr. Google for your bloat do’s and dont’s. Maybe––just maybe––I can teach you a new thing or two on the topic:

According to all the literature (at least six good studies over the last couple of decades) dogs most at risk include those who...

#1 hail from large or giant breeds (though any dog of any breed can bloat)

#2 are middle-aged or older (though any dog of any age can bloat)

#3 have first-degree relatives who have bloated (littermates or parents)

#4 are speed-demon eaters

#5 dine from raised food bowls

All of those recomendations on feeding twice daily or steering clear of exercise before or after eating? The issue of deep-chested conformations, leanness, meanness, inflammatory bowel disease-links and internal ligament lengths? No concrete evidence...not yet, anyhow. 

Though it’s a highly treatable disease, bloat is a killer. I figure that’s why people worry so much over the risk factors––especially the ones they CAN control. Maybe that explains the popularity of the bloat post. But that doesn’t explain why I caught so much flak over the issue of feeding from raised food bowls. 

I received several emails on the subject, expressing confusion and/or hoping to correct me on the subject. I was even questioned by a couple of readers as to whether I intended to say just the opposite on the subject of raised bowls. It appears they’d been previously advised in the reverse––as in, feeding from elevated bowls reduces the risk of bloat, instead of elevating it.

Then, lo and behold, The Bark reviewed my submission and sent an email asking me to qualify my statement on raised food bowls (by explaining that this finding was from just one study, albeit by far the largest of its kind). So you know, any addendum that helps explain the research is always fine by me, but in this case it also served to deepen the mystery as to why raised food bowls raise hackles––if that’s indeed what’s happening here. 

So what is it about recommending against raised bowl-feeding to reduce bloat-risk that gets everyone going? 

Is it that doing so defies conventional wisdom? Maybe so, since some believe raising bowls provides a more “natural” eating position which can help a variety of other conditions from neck pain to ophthalmologic diseases. Is it because it’s hard to change our way of thinking once the opposite belief has already been widely disseminated? Or is it that feeding from a height makes us feel as if we’re doing something positive, whereas feeding conventionally doesn’t offer us that same satisfaction? 

In any case, here’s the finding in the largest study of its kind (1,634 dogs), one you can read and dispute at your leisure: 

“Cumulative incidence of GDV during the study was 6% for large breed and giant breed dogs. Factors significantly associated with an increased risk of GDV were increasing age, having a first-degree relative with a history of GDV, having a faster speed of eating, and having a raised feeding bowl. Approximately 20 and 52% of cases of GDV among the large breed and giant breed dogs, respectively, were attributed to having a raised feed bowl.” (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2000;217:1492–1499)

Despite the impressive nature of these stats, it’s true that this is but one study, the only one that ever attempted to discern whether raising a bowl made any difference whatsoever. We have no conflicting research. Not yet. 

Though we keep looking for clues, preventing bloat remains one of veterinary medicine’s most elusive grails. More research needs to be done, certainly, but in the meantime, what can I say? Raise your bowls at your own risk...for now, anyway.