HEALTH & CARE

Megaesophagus in Dogs: Causes, Treatment And Care

Canine megaessophagus
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Not known to many dog owners, megaesophagus is a very serious medical condition where the esophagus muscles loses its and is no longer able to drive the food/ bolus into the stomach as it was supposed to. The esophagus is an exceedingly long tube that connects the stomach and the mouth and drives chewed food (also known as bolus) from the mouth into the stomach by peristalsis. When peristalsis occurs, the muscles of the esophagus contracts and expands in a wave-like a manner, pushing the food along the tube systematically.

Once a dog contracts megaesophagus, the esophagus increases in size because the muscles have become loose and cannot be able to perform their duties. Once the dog swallows food, it becomes entrapped in the esophagus and cannot be transported into the stomach as expected. If you suspect that your dog has contracted this disease, then you should make a point of contacting the nearest veterinarian as soon as possible. It is also very important to note that any dog breed can develop this disorder.

However there are certain dog breeds that are highly susceptible to this condition, like:

  • Labrador Retriever
  • Great Dane
  • German Shepherd
  • Irish Setter
  • Shar Pei
  • Miniature Schnauzer

Causes of megaesophagus

Like many other diseases, the severity of megaesophagus usually varies from one dog to another. In some cases, the disorder can be mild, hence affecting a small portion of the esophagus, while, in other cases, the entire tube is usually affected. Hence, it will function poorly. Since Megaesophagus is a congenital disorder, it can be acquired during birth.

Apart from being a congenital disease, Megaesophagus can also be acquired by dogs at any stage in their lives especially, during adulthood. In younger dogs, Megaesophagus is usually idiopathic, that is it will be caused by an unknown cause or it can also be caused by an abnormal ring anomaly. Also, Megaesophagus can also be caused by a persistent right aortic arch in young dogs.

Dog x-ray

For adult dogs, the disease is usually acquired, and can either be primary or secondary Megaesophagus. All in all, congenital Megaesophagus is usually more common than acquired Megaesophagus. Primary Megaesophagus is usually caused by an unknown cause while secondary Megaesophagus is usually a caused other disease such as myasthenia gravis, hypothyroidism, and Addison’s disease.

Apart from being a result of other diseases, secondary Megaesophagus can also be caused by serious problems in the esophagus such as inflammations, tumors or exposure to toxins. Unlike the primary Megaesophagus, which can be easily detected, secondary Megaesophagus is usually not easily detected because it is caused by another disease. In cases where the disease has been acquired, there is usually an urgent need to identify the underlying cause so that it can be treated and controlled immediately.

Symptoms: how to recognize the condition

Megaesophagus has numerous symptoms but the most common one is regurgitation. It is very important to understand the difference between regurgitation and vomiting because many times, regurgitation has always been confused with vomiting. Vomiting is an active process that is usually associated with heaving and retching, where the dog’s body will force out food remains from the stomach. Regurgitation, on the other hand, is a rather passive process, where food or water comes out of the dog’s throat without any warning.

All in all, regurgitation is usually associated with Megaesophagus because, after consumption, the ingested food is normally trapped in the esophagus until it is removed from the body by regurgitation. Another common sign that is associated with Megaesophagus is weight loss. Since the ingested food does not reach the stomach, the dog’s body cannot be able to find a constant supply of nutrients which in turn may lead to weight loss and malnutrition.

Symptoms

Aspiration pneumonia is also another common complication that is associated with Megaesophagus. Because the food is trapped inside the esophagus, it can easily end up in the lungs. When this is not addressed immediately, it can lead aspiration pneumonia that is very dangerous if is left unattended for a long duration of time. For secondary Megaesophagus, the symptoms that are present include excessive saliva, difficulty in swallowing, nasal discharge, fever, bad breath, poor body condition, changes in the vocal code and respiratory distress.

It is important to note that aspiration pneumonia is one of the main causes of death in dogs with Megaesophagus If your dog is showing any of the above signs then you should take him or her to your local veterinary officer. If left unattended, secondary Megaesophagus can be fatal especially when pneumonia develops in the process.

Diagnosis and treatment

After taking your dog to the veterinarian, he or she is going to begin diagnosis of the disease by asking you, the pet owner about the dog’s medical history. Also, he or she is going to inquire about the symptoms that the dog has been showing. After inquiring about the symptoms, the vet will then perform some blood work and x-rays of the dog’s chest and that of the abdomen. The x-ray of the dog’s chest and abdomen are not usually performed in all reported cases, but rather those that the vet may want to assess further.

Also, the vet may also check the dog’s esophagus so as to determine as to whether fluids, food or air are present in the organ. For cases that are rather serious, the vet will conduct a definitive diagnosis, by conducting a barium study of the affected organ or by using fluoroscopy.

Megaesophagus in Dogs

Depending on the amount of cash you will be willing to spend and the types of equipment available at the veterinarian clinic, he or she can conduct a more advanced procedure by the name Esophagoscopy. Esophagoscopy is a medical procedure that will allow the vet to visualize the interior of the esophagus. Apart from viewing the interiors of the esophagus, the vet can also use this procedure to remove any foreign body that may be trapped in the organ or conduct an evaluation of tumors or any obstruction that may be present.

Depending on the dog’s symptoms and age, the vet may also decide to conduct other blood tests that may include antinuclear tests and acetylcholine tests. The acetylcholine test is at times referred to as ANA titer and is mainly used to detect immune-mediated diseases. Acetylcholine tests are also used for hormonal testing e.g. thyroid functioning testing and stimulation test. In other cases, the vet may also decide to use radiographs especially in cases where he suspects that the dog may have developed pneumonia.

Currently, there is no form of treatment that can be used to treat Megaesophagus and many times surgery has proven ineffective against this ailment. Nonetheless, in some cases, medical therapy has proven effective while in other cases there has been no effect. All in all, the main treatment therapy for Megaesophagus is lifestyle management. In lifestyle management, food consistency is usually the first issue that is to be addressed.

It is important to note, that currently there are no specific food that have been found effective, however as a dog owner, you can be able to find what works for your dog and what does not. All in all, the most common diets include dry food, canned foods and liquid diets or a combination of all the three foods. When you can find what works for the dog, you should stick to it and eliminate those foods that do not work for him or her.

When giving out food, you should give it out in small fragments on a consistent basis as opposed to giving out largely limited meals. Elevated feeding must be practiced so that gravity must be able to pull down the food into the stomach as opposed to the food being trapped in the esophagus. There are many ways or approaches that can be used to execute elevated feedings such as a Bailey chair or a step ladder. When using the stepladder technique, the dog’s food must be placed on either the third step or the fourth step while the dog’s leg should be placed on the floor.

Bailey chair for dogs

Just from looking at the design, one can be able to tell that the Bailey chair was specifically designed to direct the food into the dog’s stomach rather that it being trapped in the esophagus. Unlike the stepladder technique, the Bailey chair allows the pet to sit in an upright position when feeding. Irrespective of the position that is ideal for your dog, always ensure that they remain elevated for up to 10 minutes after eating. Keeping the dog elevated allows the food to flow properly into the stomach.

Another common feeding approach that is commonly used for feeding dogs with megaesophagus is feeding tubes. However, since using feeding tubes as a feeding alternative is highly complicated, you should let the vet do the procedure for you rather than doing it yourself because you might cause harm to the dog. All in all, the feeding tube is usually inserted into the dog’s stomach, hence allowing the dog to feed without the need of passing the food through the esophagus.

All in all, there are several medications that can be given to an affected dog so that the disease can be treated. One such drug is Metoclopramide, which is usually administered so that the muscle tones of the affected areas can be repaired. Another drug that is used in the treatment of Megaesophagus is Antacids, which are used to reduce the damage that has been caused by the esophagus.

Nausea medication is usually given to the dog so that he or she can be able to feel good once more. Another drug that has been used in the treatment of Megaesophagus is Cisapride though it is not legally available in the United States. It is important to note, that many at times, medical therapy might not be effective in treating Megaesophagus.

Taking care of dogs with megaesophagus

When giving out water to an affected dog at home, the water must be given to the dog by placing the dog in a vertical position. If the dog is exercising especially in the park, then you should make a point of holding the water bottle up to 5 minutes after the dog has completed drinking the water. This can be achieved by training the dog so that he or she can allow you to hold him or her in a vertical position without any resistance whatsoever. The correct amount of water is to be provided during or after every meal.

As a dog owner, you should never allow the dog to drink out of toilets, bowls sinks or stagnant water. In case there are other pets in the house, you may give them water according to their schedule but you should ensure that the water is not left behind unattended because the affected dog might gain access to the water.

In case the pet becomes dehydrated, or in case the vet feels that he or she may need additional fluids, then you can ask the vet to show you how to give the fluids subcutaneously. It is also important to note that many affected dogs may be unable to drink water directly from the bowl because they are going to regurgitate it. If this is the case, then you can choose to add water to the dog’s food.

Alternatively, you can decide to use Knox blocks as another way to give water to the affected pet. Knox Blocks are ideal because they will give the pet a solid reason to try and drink the water.

Doggie exercise benefits

Apart from food and water, it has also been noted that exercises are also essential during the recuperation period. Exercises must be conducted before giving out meals or in some cases, you can also choose to, after meals.

In addition, the exercises must only last for about 5 to 10 minutes. During the initial stages, the dog might have some difficulties in training but after sometime he or she is going to be able to play and exercise like other dogs. Depending on your work schedule, you can also decide to sign up your dog in a support group, where he or she is going to participate in agility competitions or hunting exercises.

It is important to note, that high-fat diets must be avoided at all cost because they tend to encourage regurgitation. Many times, many dog owners tend to opt for high-fat diets with hopes of assisting their pets add some extra pounds. If you are a dog owner and you are looking for an ideal way to assist your dog is adding in weight, then you should first of all make a point of ensuring that the regurgitation is under control. You can achieve this, by using low-fat diet prescriptions that many at times most affected dogs tend to tolerate.

In addition, you should also make a point of completely avoiding raw diets because all dogs with Megaesophagus tend to have a higher risk of aspirating some of the regurgitated stomach content and with the presence of bacteria in the food, it can pose a major risk to the dog.

Another food that is not highly recommended for dogs with Megaesophagus is rice. If you are planning to prepare something for your dog, then you should make a point of contacting a nutritionist or a veterinarian for advice. This is very important because most of the nutritionist and veterinarians will provide all the essential nutrients thus in the process you will be ensuring that your pet has the correct supply of all the essential nutrients.

All in all, apart from acquiring the recommended diets and supplements, you can also decide to add coconut milk to the dog’s daily meal intake. Once the consistency has been discovered, then you can once in a while providing regular pet food to the dog and in many cases, the ideal consistency often results in a much lesser regurgitation.

Watery meals with rice

It is also important to note that the type of food usually varies from one dog to another with some preferring formed meals such as meatballs while there are those who will prefer canned meals. During the initial stages of feeding, you should make a point of starting with pudding-like or watery meals. Once in a while, there are those dogs that may prefer dry food.

When it comes to sleeping, all affected dogs must sleep with their front at an elevated point, or you can purchase a balloon type collar so that the head can be properly supported. Keeping the head elevated will not only assist with the treatment but also it will play a key role in minimizing future attacks. Furthermore, these techniques are also crucial in minimizing the flow of regurgitation, hence in the process minimizing micro-aspiration.

Many affected dogs cannot be given treats because the smell of food and treats will cause the dog to produce a high amount of saliva which can lead to regurgitation. Unknown by many, the dog owner’s attention is usually the best treat that can be given to an affected dog. Be sure to use verbal praise and petting, which many at times have all proven to be effective training techniques. All in all, most dog owners are usually hopeful that the disorder will be fed away as time goes by especially if the disease has been caused by another condition.

Although this might be possible, the chance of this occurring in adult dogs is about 15 percent. Various breed, such as the German Shepherd have outgrown the disease from time to time though this is usually extremely rare. Despite, the fact that megaesophagus is a lifetime disease, all affected dogs can be able to live high quality lives especially if the dog owner can be able to develop and observe their management protocol.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.

  • Cate Turner

    Since the usual treats are off the table, training a dog with ME is a difficult affair but not impossible. We’ve learned this the long and grueling way but the end result is worth it. Basically, anything can be a treat, a toy (or toys) can serve as treats for training and reinforcing good behavior. Let the pooch ‘work for it’ and reward his behavior if he does something right. That’s the long and short of it. Oh, and get the assistance of a trainer, they’re a godsend!

    • It is true that dealing with ME is difficult, but any obstacle can be overtaken with patience and compassion. Good job in exerting all means to help your dog live a relatively normal life.

  • MarieMarieBrown

    Our dog is suffering from Megaesophagus (ME) for 2 years now and I’d like to say it’s not a death sentence. Through the help of our vet, he figured feeding him upright in a garbage bin will do him good. He’s right and
    our dog is thriving and eating, as well. So don’t lose faith pet owners and always hope for the best. There are also support groups out there who are willing to help.

    • It is far from being a death sentence, it is just one of those challenges of being a pet parent.

  • Pixie

    My female German shepherd is 2 and has ME… My husband had her when we meet and was told she shouldn’t be spayed. She went into heat… We keep her inside except to potty. She was put for 5 mins and a male German shepherd jumped our fence… And we feel like he locked her. I’m worried about her. Any help Would be appreciated. Please no judgement.. We just go by what the vet told us.

  • I think you just did the right thing in the protective aspect. As long as you don’t beat a dog or deprive it of its needs, everything looks fine to me. She can resume her normal routine once the heat is over.

  • sujay das

    My female dutchound is now ..
    She is suffering with megaesophagus.
    I am feeding her vertically.
    But till now she is vomiting.
    Please assist me..how to feed her ?

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