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When a dog gets diagnosed with something like fleas or an ear infection, it’s easy to get plenty of information on what that means and what you need to do. But what if your dog gets a diagnosis of a rare condition that you haven’t heard of before? Most dog owners who hear that their dog has megaesophagus have no idea what that means at first. And the more they research, the more lack of information they often find. It’s a frustrating situation for any dog owner.
In this guide to megaesophagus in dogs, we will cover everything you need to know about what this condition is, as well as topics like:
Just because your dog has been diagnosed with something rare does not mean that you need to give up hope. This condition can actually be managed, and your dog can go on to live a happy life. Let’s get started on this guide to megaesophagus in dogs.
You may hear megaesophagus referred to as “floppy esophagus”, and that’s a good way to think of the condition. The esophagus is the tube that runs from the mouth to the stomach, transporting food to the digestive system. Normally, muscles in and around the esophagus move the food down the tube by contracting. In a dog with megaesophagus, the esophagus is lacking in those toned muscles, and can’t really move food all that well. Additionally, the esophagus isn’t as rigid as it should be, so it can develop little folds and pockets where food is trapped.
All of this boils down to food not making it to your dog’s stomach. In other words, your dog may be eating just fine, but they aren’t truly getting fed, because food is never making it into their bodies to be broken down, digested, and used.
There are two main reasons that a dog could develop megaesophagus. The first is as a result of some other disease. For example, some puppies have a disease called PRAA (persistent right aortic arch) that usually needs surgery to be corrected. This condition can lead to megaesophagus. Other dogs may have neuromuscular issues, like MG, GSD, botulism, or tetanus, that needs to be treated with medication. Megaesophagus could be a side effect of that medication.
The second reason that a dog develops megaesophagus is a bit more frustrating, because it’s essentially “we don’t know”. We don’t know why some otherwise totally healthy dogs sometimes develop this condition. There are no studies that show it may be genetic, or related to breed, or anything else. In this case, your vet will refer to it as idiopathic megaesophagus.
There are a few other reasons that dogs can develop megaesophagus, but they aren’t very common. These include:
There are two main symptoms that a dog owner will see in a dog with megaesophagus. The first is a lot of regurgitating. Dogs that have food trapped in their esophagus will frequently regurgitate up what looks like undigested food. It will look basically like crunched up kibble, or may be in a tube shape if it has been in the esophagus for a while. Regurgitation does not take a lot of effort. The food will just appear to fall right back out of the throat, without any heaving or signs of nausea. The dog isn’t trying to get food back up from the stomach, accompanied by bile, as in vomiting – the body is just clearing the throat, basically.
Along with the regurgitating can come a secondary symptom called aspiration pneumonia (AP), which is when food, saliva, or water gets into the lungs during the regurgitation. This can be a very dangerous symptom, so it’s important to get to the vet if you see a dog having any of the following symptoms:
The second symptom of megaesophagus in dogs is appearing very malnourished, or losing weight quickly, even if a dog has appeared to be eating well. Because food isn’t getting into the stomach, the dog won’t be able to put on weight or get enough nutrients. If a dog frequently gets sick or seems very lethargic, weak, or depressed, it could be because they are lacking essential calories and nutrients. In an extreme state, a malnourished dog may act confused, aggressive, or may sleep nearly all of the time.
There are some other side effects of megaesophagus, such as ulcers in the esophagus, due to food collecting in pockets. However, the visible symptoms don’t really show up as anything more than malnourishment, regurgitating, and the symptoms of AP.
There are two ways that megaesophagus is typically diagnosed in dogs. Once a vet is told that a dog has been regurgitating, or treats a dog for AP, they will either perform an x-ray of the esophagus or a barium swallow. An x-ray can show that the esophagus is “floppy”. A barium swallow is also an x-ray, but the dog is first fed a drink that makes the esophagus show up in contrast on an x-ray. This can help the vet see the exact shape and position of the esophagus.
If the esophagus is not the standard shape and configuration, and the dog is also exhibiting symptoms of megaesophagus, the diagnosis will be made. And this is where many dog owners are left scratching their heads and wondering what next. This condition isn’t something that is common, and at first it can seem hopeless. How can a dog have a happy life if their body doesn’t allow them to eat?
There are only a few instances in which surgery is used to treat megaesophagus in dogs. For example, removing the foreign object causing trauma, or treating AP, may be situations in which the vet would recommend surgery. However, for most cases, the best way to treat megaesophagus in dogs is to manage it through changes in your daily living. This is because no surgery will fix the issue of a lack of working muscles, which is what causes most cases of megaesophagus.
The most important change that you’ll have to make to manage megaesophagus in dogs is to feed dogs vertically. They need gravity to help them get the food to their stomach. This means that they’ll need a high chair or something that props them upright when they eat. If you can train your dog to sit up on his hind legs, as if begging, when he eats, this would work as well.
But the problem is that the dog must remain upright for at least 10 minutes or so after eating, to ensure that the food travels all the way through the esophagus. (Some dogs may need even more time than that! You’ll have to try out different time lengths till you figure out how long your dog needs to be upright to not regurgitate food after eating.) This is why a high chair is helpful.
The next thing you’ll need to do is change your dog’s food. Dry kibble or anything that would need to be pushed down the esophagus should be replaced by liquid foods. For example, you may be able to make a mush out of dry kibble by soaking it in meat broth or water before feeding your dog. Or you may use soft food to form tiny “meatballs” that tumble right down the esophagus. Once again, this part will require some trial and error.
The way your dog drinks water will need to change as well. You may find it easiest to just add their water to their food so that they get hydration. However, it may also work to give them water with a large hamster bottle if they are a small dog. Mount the bottle up high so that they have to jump up to drink, and they’ll be in the right position for getting the water to go straight down to the stomach.
Additionally, a dog will need smaller meals to prevent them from getting a buildup of food in the esophagus pockets. The best thing to do is to break your dog’s food up into multiple smaller meals every day.
Finally, your vet may prescribe an antacid that controls stomach acid. This is just one less thing to irritate the esophagus, which is a very good idea for a dog with megaesophagus.
There are some other medications that may be used to treat common side effects of megaesophagus in dogs. For example, antibiotics will be used to treat AP. Anti-ulcer medications may be used to treat sores that develop in the esophagus “pockets”. Anti-nausea medications can help reduce the regurgitating. Pain medications may be used for dogs that avoid eating due to pain in the throat.
In some extreme cases, a feeding tube that goes directly to the stomach, and/or IV fluids, are part of a dog’s management program for megaesophagus.
There is no way to prevent a dog from developing megaesophagus in most cases. However, if the underlying issue that is causing megaesophagus in dogs is something that can be cured, then treating that could fix the megaesophagus. So, in some cases, giving your dog great health care can “prevent” them from having megaesophagus long term.
Unfortunately, while managing megaesophagus in dogs can be accomplished with some simple changes in diet, most dogs that have this condition do develop complications over time. Most dogs that are diagnosed with megaesophagus do eventually succumb to malnutrition or AP, as well as a failure of organs and bodily systems. Neurological issues are also frequently seen as side effects of this condition.
There are some breeds that are more prone to developing megaesophagus than others. Those include:
However, it is also not uncommon for Bulldogs and Basset Hounds to develop this condition.
Megaesophagus in dogs is a rare and complex condition that has many causes, some of them unknown. The condition basically means that food cannot get to your dog’s stomach because the muscles surrounding the esophagus don’t work (in most cases). Sometimes surgery to correct another issue can clear up megaesophagus in dogs, but for the most part, this is a lifelong condition that cannot be cured.
Owners of dogs with megaesophagus will have to learn how to keep their dog upright after eating, and may have to resort to feeding tubes or other serious changes to keep their dog fed properly. This condition usually leads to complications, and the prognosis isn’t always good.
But that isn’t to say that there isn’t hope. There are large communities of people who own dogs with megaesophagus, who are always finding new ways to keep their dogs well-fed and nourished, even with the condition. The addition of certain medications can help your dog keep their food down easier, and prevent them from developing other complications.
If you are a dog owner whose dog has recently been diagnosed with megaesophagus, there will be a lot to learn – but don’t give up hope. Your dog can get better with patience and love.