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What is Megaesophagus in Dog, and How Can You Treat It?

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What is Megaesophagus in Dog, and How Can You Treat It?

Has your dog been recently diagnosed with megaesophagus? Are they constantly vomiting, and your internet search has led you here and to worrying about your dog?  This article will explain what megaesophagus is and how to find out if your dog does have it. While this disease may sound scary at first, many dogs are living a happy, normal life while managing their disease.


What is Megaesophagus?

The esophagus is the name of the organ that carries food from the mouth to the stomach.  This is normally a long slender tube. Many things can cause this tube to become dilated and enlarged. When this tube is wider than it should be, your dog can have a condition known as megaesophagus.  Dogs who have megaesophagus have trouble swallowing their food. The food will usually end up in the dilation of the esophagus, which can cause your dog to regurgitate their food and develop aspiration pneumonia.

 

dog eating out of neater slow feeder

 

What causes Megaesophagus?

There are many diseases or genetic problems that can cause megaesophagus in dogs.  These causes can be broken down into two main categories. They are: 


Congenital Megaesophagus

Dogs with congenital megaesophagus are born with a problem in their esophagus.  You will first start to see problems with congenital megaesophagus shortly after weaning when your dog is starting to eat solid foods. The cause of congenital megaesophagus is usually unknown but can be caused by incomplete development of nerves or a heart defect called persistent right aortic arch (PRAA).


PRAA is caused by a remnant of a fetal vessel that should not be present by birth.  This causes a stricture around the esophagus, causing the part of the esophagus closer to the mouth to be enlarged.  While there is a surgical procedure that can fix the heart problem, the damage to the esophagus may be permanent. Usually, this surgery has to be done at a specialty hospital and can be very expensive.  

 

smiling border collie black and white dog



Acquired Megaesophagus

Acquired Megaesophagus usually develops later in life.  Sometimes this cause is unknown, but many other diseases can cause your dog to have megaesophagus as well. These diseases include:

  • Trauma to the brain or spinal cord
  • Hypothyroid
  • Addison’s Disease
  • Toxin Exposure
  • Nerve or muscle dysfunction
  • Foreign object stuck in the esophagus
  • Tumor in chest

Common Signs Associated with Megaesophagus

Many signs are associated with megaesophagus.  The main sign associated with this disease is regurgitation.  Regurgitation is when your dog spits up their food after eating without retching.  If your dog is retching, this is considered vomiting. Dogs who regurgitate are more like to have aspiration pneumonia.  This is commonly seen in dogs who have megaesophagus.

 

white dog sniffing brown haired woman


Other Signs Associated with Megaesophagus in Dogs

Other signs that you may see with megaesophagus in dogs are:

  • Vomiting
  • Coughing
  • Discharge from their nose
  • Weight loss
  • Increased breath sounds
  • Drooling
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bad breath
  • Not gaining weight

If you notice any of these signs, especially regurgitation, make an appointment with your veterinarian.  You can discuss your dog's signs and your concerns of megaesophagus in your dog with your vet. They will want to run tests to help diagnose the cause of these problems and make sure that your dog does not have another problem.


How Do You Diagnose Megaesophagus? 

Megaesophagus can usually be easily diagnosed with x-rays. An x-ray of your dog's chest will show an enlarged esophagus.  Sometimes it can be harder to make a diagnosis with just a plain x-ray.  Your veterinarian will give your dog barium to drink. This is a white liquid that will show up on x-rays.  When they take an x-ray after your dog drinks barium will help your veterinarian see the outline of the esophagus easier and be able to make a diagnosis of megaesophagus.


There is not a blood test to diagnose megaesophagus, but there is a blood test to help figure out what is causing it in dogs.  These tests will test for things like hypothyroid, Addison's disease, and Myasthenia gravis. Other tests that your veterinarian may want to perform are endoscopy of the esophagus, nerve, and muscle biopsy or test of the cerebrospinal fluids (CSF) around the spinal cord.   

 

little boy and dad playing with dog


What Is The Treatment for Megaesophagus?

Treatment for megaesophagus would depend on what is causing the problem. Some surgeries can help if there is an obstruction in the esophagus or PRAA.  Certain medications can help treat the disease that is causing the problems. Certain things that are recommended for dogs with megaesophagus are to feed liquid gruel or small meatballs.  If your dog has developed aspiration pneumonia due to their disease, your dog may need oxygen therapy, antibiotics, or other medications to help them recover.


Depending on the condition that your dog is, they may need a feed tube so that they can eat.  This would be a tube that comes out of their neck and goes all the way to their stomach. Your dog can live with a feeding tube for years.  Your veterinarian can show you how to feed and maintain these tubes.  


How to Live with and Manage Megaesophagus in Dogs

There are many things that you can do to help manage your dog with megaesophagus such as: 

Elevated Bowls

Feeding your dog from an elevated bowl will help the food go down their esophagus into their stomach.  It is advised to elevate the bowls to a height so that your dog is eating at a 45 to 90-degree angle.  

Slow Feeder Bowl

Some dogs with megaesophagus will eat their food very fast.  This causes food to get stuck in the enlarged part of their esophagus.  By using a slow feeder, the bowl will cause your pet to have to eat slower and give food more time to get to the stomach.  

Elevate After Eating

After your dog eats, hold their front legs up for about 10 to 15 minutes.  This also allows gravity to help move food to the stomach.

Frequent Vet Visits

By making regular checkups for your dog, you can assure that they are happy and healthy.  Your veterinarian can assess your dog's progress.

 

son and dad fishing with dog

 

What is the Prognosis of Megaesophagus in Dogs?

Dogs who have megaesophagus will have lifelong management and therapy.  This is a big commitment that pet owners will have to commit to each day.  The prognosis for this disease can be good if the cause is determined, and the condition is treatable. However, many of the times, this disease carries a poor prognosis due to the underlying issue is unknown. Many complications can occur with megaesophagus that also carries a poor prognosis.  With this disease, malnutrition and aspiration pneumonia are the main causes of death. With your veterinarian's help, you can diagnose the underlying cause of megaesophagus in your dog. Your commitment to the daily care and treatment of your dog will help your dog to live a semi-normal life. 


While megaesophagus is not the best disease that you could hopeful in your dog, there are many ways to help your dog live a healthy and happy life.  This disease can be successfully managed in many dogs. Of course, it always best to consult your local veterinarian.

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  • Fernando Becattini