Some chronic health conditions of dogs are relatively straightforward to manage. Others, however, require pet parents to be patient and willing to frequently try new approaches to help their dog. Megaesophagus is one of those potentially exasperating and devastating chronic conditions.
Smurf, a French bulldog who was roughly 5 years old at the time of this writing, had been diagnosed with megaesophagus about 15 months before. Since February 2016, Smurf lived with Tanya Laughren of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, a volunteer with the Humane Animal Rescue Team (HART). Smurf is Tanya’s sixth foster case and her first foster dog with significant medical issues.
“While at the humane society, Smurf was having issues with ‘regurg’ and weight loss,” Tanya says. The humane society reached out to HART, which agreed to rescue the sweet Frenchie.
“We’ve tried all kinds of different foods, especially those for dogs with a sensitive stomach,” Tanya explains. “Smurf used to regurg after every meal, all night long or if given too much water.
“Dogs with megaesophagus have trouble swallowing their saliva, and this can cause trouble during the night,” she adds. A common concern associated with frequent regurgitation is that a dog may inadvertently inhale fluid and food into their lungs (also known as aspiration), which may lead to pneumonia.
What is megaesophagus?
The movement of food, water and even saliva is something most of us take for granted. The esophagus — the long, muscular tube that connects the mouth to the stomach — simply conveys chewed food and water to the stomach. What you may not realize is that the normal, healthy esophagus uses squeezing contractions, known as peristalsis, to push swallowed food into the stomach within seconds of swallowing, leaving the esophagus empty.
But as with every other body system, organ and tissue, problems can occur with the esophagus and how it works. Megaesophagus is a condition in which the muscles of the esophagus become weak and flabby, essentially “losing muscle tone” — and the ability to move food into the stomach. The esophagus also dilates more than normal, and food and water can stay in the esophagus longer before entering the stomach. Swallowed food, water and saliva may be regurgitated if it doesn’t enter the stomach.
While the signs and symptoms of megaesophagus vary from dog to dog, the most common is regurgitation. Regurgitation appears similar to vomiting, but it’s actually a passive emptying of food and fluid from the esophagus or back of the mouth with little or no warning. In contrast, vomiting involves forceful ejection of stomach contents and is associated with heaving and retching. Other symptoms of megaesophagus in dogs include:
- Clearing the throat with a hacking sound
- Decreased appetite
- Weight loss
- Difficult, exaggerated or frequent swallowing
- Refusal to eat
- Chronic bad breath
To diagnose megaesophagus, a veterinarian will use X-rays or other forms of diagnostic imaging to view the upper gastrointestinal tract. Smurf’s veterinary team performed a barium contrast series of X-rays to visualize what was — or wasn’t — occurring during digestion. Not only was the veterinarian able to diagnose megaesophagus but found that Smurf’s esophagus has pockets that allow food to become stuck.
Managing megaesophagus in dogs
There is no cure for most cases of megaesophagus. However, changes in feeding and eating habits of dogs like Smurf can help reduce the frequency of regurgitation. Some dogs do best on a liquid diet, while others find solid food to be easier.
“It’s definitely been a matter of trial and error — what food to feed, the consistency, the amount of water and the amount of time to keep Smurf upright after feeding,” Tanya says. About four months ago, when a bag of Diamond CARE Sensitive Stomach Formula for Adult Dogs was donated to HART, Tanya thought she would try feeding it to Smurf. She — and Smurf — are thrilled with the results.
“Smurf’s been on Diamond CARE for about four months now,” Tanya reports. “CARE has been a life-changing food for her. She’s regurgitating less, coughing less and doesn’t choke as much.”
Two other changes that Tanya made in how Smurf is fed includes using a Bailey chair and feeding small, frequent meals. Currently, Smurf is fed four times daily in her Bailey chair, which was built especially for her by HART volunteers. The Bailey chair positions Smurf so that she stands on her back legs while eating and drinking from bowls in a tilted tray. She then stays in her chair for about 20 minutes after eating to allow gravity to move food into her stomach.
“It’s been amazing what the HART community has done for this sweet little girl,” Tanya says. “I really appreciate them and what they are doing, and that they haven’t given up on her.”