Can Megaesophagus in Dogs Be Cured?

Can Megaesophagus in Dogs Be Cured?

Posted by Volhard Dog Nutrition on Jan 31st 2023

Megaesophagus or esophageal dilation is a condition that impedes food from properly traveling from the mouth to the stomach. The esophagus (i.e., the tube linking the oral cavity with the stomach) becomes dilated and loses motility (i.e., the food takes longer to reach the stomach). In dogs with megaesophagus, the swallow reflex triggered by the brain's swallowing center is not enough to push the food forward. As a result, the food gets trapped in the dog's esophagus, posing a choking risk. The most common sign of dogs with megaesophagus is regurgitation.

The dangers posed by megaesophagus go further than food regurgitation. A reduction in nutrient intake, as well as a phobia of this condition's symptoms, will cause your dog to abstain from food altogether. Although a serious medical condition, megaesophagus is manageable. As long as you adapt their food and feeding practices, your dog will be fine.

What are the Different Types of Megaesophagus in Dogs?

Two types of megaesophagus can occur in dogs: congenital and acquired:

Congenital Megaesophagus

Dogs with congenital megaesophagus (or primary megaesophagus) deal with this condition from birth. Puppies show the first symptoms when they start weaning off their mother's milk and turn to solid food.

Acquired Megaesophagus

Acquired megaesophagus, however, is more common, can be traced back to various causes, and may occur at any age. The highest number of cases (25%) stem from acquired myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease that targets and severs the neural links with the esophagus. Aside from myasthenia gravis, other underlying conditions causing acquired megaesophagus are foreign bodies lodged in the esophagus, esophageal cancer, and vascular ring anomalies.

What are the Symptoms of Megaesophagus?

Regurgitating food and water are the primary symptoms of megaesophagus in dogs and cats. Other symptoms may include bad breath, fever, rapid breathing, hypersalivation, and abnormal lung sounds caused by aspiration pneumonia.

Megaesophagus occurs either as congenital or acquired.

Weight loss is another telltale sign of megaesophagus. Your dog will act in a manner associated with hunger only to refuse to eat altogether. At this point, your dog has learned to interpret food as the cause of coughing and gagging, so they steer clear of it. This approach might curb the discomfort for a while, but over time, starvation will kick in. Megaesophagus is even more dangerous for puppies, who will have to deal with structural defects if they're not weaned off a nutritious diet.

Weight loss is a solid reason why free feeding is not a healthy practice for dogs with megaesophagus. Free feeding means pouring your dog's daily ration of food into a bowl and letting them eat throughout the day. But there's no telling whether the dog will eat anything at all (if they've already associated food with discomfort). Also, your dog might choke on food while you are not present, putting their life at risk. That is why you must be by your dog's side and watch them eat: to ensure they get the nutrients they need and to keep them safe.

Is Food Regurgitation the Same As Vomiting?

Although they might sound similar, regurgitating food and vomiting are different. When vomiting, the dog expels food and liquids from the stomach by forcefully contracting the abdominal muscles. Regurgitation, however, is a passive process — the food is gradually released from the esophagus without any signs associated with vomiting, such as retching, gagging, and heaving. Pay attention to these signs to determine whether your dog is vomiting or regurgitating.

Keep a Closer Eye on Any Symptoms of Aspiration Pneumonia

The most dangerous complication associated with canine megaesophagus is the risk of aspiration pneumonia. When dealing with this condition, the dog vomits and inhales food straight into the lungs, causing inflammation. Aspiration pneumonia occurs most often in puppies. Its symptoms include fever, wheezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, and accelerated heart rate. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you believe these symptoms to be caused by aspiration pneumonia.

Certain Breeds are Predisposed to Megaesophagus

Breeds such as Wirehaired Fox Terriers and Miniature Schnauzers show a predisposition to megaesophagus. Other dog breeds showing the same predisposition are:

  • German Shepherds
  • Great Danes
  • Greyhounds
  • Irish Setters
  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Newfoundland Dogs
  • Shar-Pei

Multiple breeds are predisposed to megaesophagus, including greyhounds.

What is the Underlying Cause of Megaesophagus?

The causes behind megaesophagus in dogs vary according to the nature of the disease. For example, primary megaesophagus has to do with an incomplete nerve development in the esophagus, and there's no telling whether nerve development will improve with age. Acquired megaesophagus, on the other hand, may result from various causes, such as:

  • Blockage of the esophagus (e.g., tumor, scar tissue, or a foreign body)
  • Degeneration or trauma in the brain or spinal cord (e.g., when dogs are hit by a car)
  • Hormonal diseases (e.g., hypothyroidism)
  • Myasthenia gravis: 25% of megaesophagus cases in dogs
  • Severe inflammation in the esophagus

Is Megaesophagus in Dogs Curable?

Although it cannot be 100% cured, megaesophagus in dogs is perfectly manageable. The first step towards treating your dog's megaesophagus is identifying its underlying cause (in the case of the acquired form). Only a trip to the vet can help determine the origin of your dog's megaesophagus and how to improve its symptoms.

How is Megaesophagus in Dogs Diagnosed?

Veterinarians have various diagnostic tests at their disposal to identify megaesophagus in dogs. X-rays are the easiest way to diagnose this condition. Although the esophagus doesn't usually show up on X-rays, anything that might obstruct it (e.g., a buildup of food or liquid) will. Although able to diagnose megaesophagus, X-rays cannot always ascertain its cause, which is why further investigations may be necessary.

Other ways of diagnosing a dilated esophagus are:

  1. Videofluoroscopic swallow study (VFSS or fluoroscopy): VFSS is similar to an X-ray but with a valuable advantage: it is performed in real-time during swallowing. The vet can analyze how the food passes from the esophagus to the stomach and identify the exact cause of the blockage.
  2. Endoscopy: the vet sends a camera down the dog's esophagus to locate any abnormalities or foreign bodies trapped inside. Endoscopies are performed under general anesthesia, which is why we recommend this diagnostic test only if other methods yield no results.

What Food Should I Feed a Dog With Megaesophagus?

Managing megaesophagus in dogs entails a special diet backed by appropriate feeding practices. Dogs with megaesophagus require a high-calorie diet because they can't eat much food. Also, you have to figure out whether your pet does better on a liquid or solid diet — different food consistencies will benefit different dogs. The recommended approach is focusing on a hydrated or liquid diet to help your dog swallow the food, although it's not always beneficial. For example, breaking the food down in a blender might decrease the chance of regurgitation, but it can also increase the risk of aspiration pneumonia.

The easiest food for dogs with megaesophagus to eat is the Volhard NDF2. This rehydrated foundation mix is easy for dogs to swallow. Also, it's packed with calories, so your dog doesn't have to eat much of it to feel full! Rescue is likewise a healthy choice, although we recommend you puree the vegetables to aid your dog's feeding process. The Rescue diet will help manage inflammation and limit allergy triggers that may exacerbate the condition.

Elevated Feeding Will Make It Easier for Your Dog to Eat

Your dog will have to switch to upright feeding care to eat and swallow easier. One available option is the Bailey chair, which can keep your dog in an upright position for 20-30 minutes, enough for them to eat and swallow appropriately. This position minimizes the risk of regurgitation and choking because gravity helps to move the food down the esophagus into the stomach. Check out the following website to place an order for a Bailey chair. You will need to take your dog's measurements to ensure the chair fits your dog perfectly.

Other options for upright feeding include a small step ladder with two or three steps leading up to the platform holding the food bowls. This design will force your dog to stand in an upright position while they eat and help the food slide down the esophagus. However, it can be tricky to convince your dog to stay on the steps once they finish eating, so you will have to hold them gently in that position until they swallow everything.

Dogs with megaesophagus can lead a relatively normal life!

Dogs With Megaesophagus Can Live a Normal Life!

Dogs with megaesophagus can enjoy relatively normal lives! With the right type of food and proper feeding practices, your dog will be able to get that nutrient-rich food they need without feeling sick all the time. All it takes from pet parents is a bit of research and a lot of patience. For more advice on dog nutrition, health, and training, make sure that you contact us and check out our blog!

Volhard Dog Nutrition and its expert nutritionists are now offering online consultations to help more dog parents discover why, what, and how to feed their dogs the healthiest of foods! Speaking to a Volhard nutritionist will help you understand the inseparable relationship between healthy food, a healthy body, and a healthy mind. If you're interested in contacting one of our Volhard nutritionists, don't hesitate to access our consultation page!

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