Bloat, or gastric dilatation volvulus (GDV), is a very serious and life-threatening medical condition in dogs. It occurs when a dog’s stomach expands from gas (that’s the “gastric dilatation” part of the term) and twists or rotates (the “volvulus” part of the term). The twisting prevents release of the gas, putting pressure on other organs, and restricting proper blood flow to and from vital parts of the body. Bloat can occur very rapidly in dogs and requires immediate medical attention. Even with treatment, one quarter or more of dogs that develop bloat will die. All dog owners should be familiar with the signs and symptoms of bloat.
The exact cause or causes of bloat are not fully understood. It is known that large breed dogs, particularly those considered deep-chested, are at highest risk of developing bloat. Other factors, like increased age, having a first degree relative who has had bloat, rapid eating, and an anxious temperament have been correlated with an increased risk of bloat.
Still, the science of bloat is not well understood. As a result, many pet owners concerned about bloat struggle to determine what they should or shouldn’t do to lower their pet’s risk of bloat. One hotly debated topic is that of elevated food bowls.
It used to be common belief that elevated food bowls were healthier for dogs. It’s hard to tell where this belief came from and why it became so engrained in the minds of so many, but it’s important to note that this belief does not appear to have come from any scientific study or medical data. Excepting for a small number of specific medical conditions, there is no scientific study data that we’re aware of that supports any health benefits to dogs derived from eating out of elevated food bowls. That does not mean that those who believe in certain benefits of elevated feeders are wrong, but we do need to keep in mind that such beliefs do not appear to be supported by any scientific or medical study data, and weigh that factor appropriately.
In the late 1990’s, researchers at Purdue University initiated a multi-year study related to bloat. They recruited well over 1,000 large and giant breed dogs that were over 6 months of age and had no history of bloat. The researchers collected some physical measurements of the dogs as well as a medical history, genetic background, personality information, and diet information. Researchers followed up with owners at roughly 1-year intervals to see if the dog had developed bloat or died.
The study data were analyzed towards numerous ends by the researchers. Most relevant here, though, is the comparison of dogs entered in the study that were reported to eat from an elevated feeder and those who did not. According to the study, “approximately 20 and 52% of cases of GDV (bloat) among the large breed and giant breed dogs, respectively, were attributed to having a raised feed bowl.” This is a very alarming conclusion, and if true, would be strong reason to avoid the use of elevated feeders in large and giant breed dogs.
The big question here is if the study results are true and accurate. The answer is that nobody knows for sure. Many have tried to disparage this study, mostly on grounds that aren’t very rational. As far as these types of studies go, this one appears to be well done. The real problem is that it is but one single study, and most in the scientific and medical communities have learned to tread carefully near such results until they are independently confirmed. These results, sadly, haven’t been confirmed, at least as far as we can tell.
Additionally, this study is an epidemiologic study, and specifically, what’s called a prospective cohort study. These are perfectly legitimate types of studies, but every study has its drawbacks. Specifically here, those enrolled in the study had made their own decision to use an elevated feeder, or not. This is different from a randomized trial study, in which participants would be randomly assigned to either use an elevated feeder or not. Since use of an elevated feeder wasn’t randomized, it begs the question – why did some folks decide to use one while some did not?
Here’s why that question could matter – what if a large number of those in the study who had decided to use an elevated feeder did so because they noticed their pet struggling in some way when eating from floor level? If that were the case, it could mean that the higher rates of bloat for those using an elevated feeder are more related to some underlying medical condition, rather than from use of an elevated feeder itself. This is all hypothetical, of course, but it demonstrates the potential for bias in non-randomized studies, and helps to explain why results like this should certainly be studied further.
Ultimately, we think this study strongly suggests a link between use of an elevated feeder and a higher risk of bloat. To be clear, though, bloat can and does occur in dogs that do not use an elevated feeder. And, while these results are strongly suggestive, without independent confirmation, they can’t be called definitive.Every dog owner will need to weigh all the available information, consult their vet, and make their own decision about using an elevated pet feeder. If it were us, though, given the strong evidence against elevated feeders coming out of the study and the lack of science showing any real benefit to using them, we’d stick with a non-elevated pet bowl stand unless our dog had a real medical need for one.