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Vetinfo.com reports, “Megaesophagus is a condition that occurs when the pet’s esophagus fails to contract and expand normally. The esophagus is the tube that connects the dog’s throat to the stomach and transports food down the throat for proper digestion. Pets suffering from megaesophagus often regurgitate their food and suffer from aspiration pneumonia. Since the passage of food from the throat to the stomach is guided by a neurologic reflex, dogs often develop megaesophagus if they’re suffering from an underlying nerve disorder.”
Many breeds are affected by this condition:
“Some breeds are born (congenital) with this problem; for example, Wire-Haired Fox Terriers and Miniature Schnauzers. Other breeds reported to be predisposed to this condition include: German Shepherds, Dachshunds, Great Danes, Irish Setters, Labrador Retrievers, Pugs and Shar-Pei,” adds PetMD.com.
What Causes an Enlarged Esophagus?
According to PetMD.com, “Megaesophagus can either be congenital in nature (born with) or acquired later in life. The congenital form is typically idiopathic (from an unknown cause), or due an unknown cause; although it is rarely due to myasthenia gravis (neuromuscular disease).” The acquired form is also commonly idiopathic, but may also be due to:
Neuromuscular disease (e.g., myasthenia gravis, distemper, or myositis)
Foreign body in esophagus
Inflammation of esophagus
Toxicity (e.g., lead or thallium poisoning)
What are the Symptoms of an Enlarged Esophagus?
“Regurgitation is considered the hallmark sign of megaesophagus. Also, aspiration pneumonia may develop due to the entrance of food or liquid into the lungs,” PetMD.com reports.
Some of the more common symptoms of megaesophagus listed by PetMD.com and vetinfo.com include:
Increased respiratory noises
Weight loss (cachexia)
Extreme hunger or lack of appetite
Excessive drooling (ptyalism)
Bad breath (halitosis)
“Most people do not realize that there is a difference between vomiting and regurgitation. Vomiting is an active process. There is gagging, heaving and retching as the body actively expels stomach contents. Regurgitation is passive. With regurgitation, food is swallowed from the mouth but never really goes very far beyond that point. Food sits in the esophagus until it simply falls back out the mouth,” mentions marvistavet.com.
How is an Enlarged Esophagus Diagnosed?
The first thing your vet will want to do for your pooch is take an X-ray. If megaesophagus is clearly detected, it is better not to use contrast (barium) studies if possible. This is due to the fact that dogs with this condition have a tendency to inhale or aspirate food contents that back up in their throats.
Marvistavet.com explains, “This is dangerous enough when the material is simply food but if barium is present and becomes inhaled, the body has great difficulty removing it from the lungs. Still, sometimes this is the only way to see the megaesophagus.”
According to PetMD.com, “Your veterinarian will first ask you for a thorough history of your dog’s health. He or she will then perform a complete physical examination on your dog and attempt to differentiate, with your description, whether it is regurgitating or vomiting, which is important in ruling out underlying diseases that cause vomiting. The shape of expelled material, presence of undigested food and length of time from ingestion to vomiting (or regurgitation) will also help differentiate between these two issues.”
How is an Enlarged Esophagus Treated?
There are several recommended treatment options for concerned pet parents depending on what the underlying medical issue is.
“Depending on the underlying cause of the problem, surgery may be employed. For instance, in cases of a foreign body, it will be removed immediately to provide relief and prevent further complications. Aspiration pneumonia is another life-threatening problem that requires immediate hospitalization, where oxygen therapy antibiotics, and other medications are used to treat the condition,” according to PetMD.com.
To minimize the effect of gravity on the food and regurgitation it’s important to train your dog to eat in an elevated position. Marvistavet.com recommends that you use a stepladder with three or more steps, depending on your dog’s size. Place the food on the top platform and have your dog eat with his front paws on the top step and his rear paws on the lower steps. Be sure to keep your dog in this position for at least 10 to15 minutes after each meal.
Pet parents may also want to create a “Bailey Chair,” an adaptive eating chair that was initially created for a sweet pooch named Bailey who survived for 13 years after his diagnosis. “It allows for upright feeding and, even more helpful, maintaining the dog in the upright position 15 minutes or so after eating to help the food reach the stomach,” according to marvistavet.com.
How Can I Prevent My Dog From Getting an Enlarged Esophagus?
Unfortunately megaesophogus cannot be prevented because it is congenital or predisposed for some breeds. If your dog is a breed that is predisposed to this condition, be sure to monitor him for the symptoms.
“Most dogs with megaesophagus require life-long therapy and commitment and patience from you. Unfortunately, dogs suffering from congenital forms of the diseases, or in whom the underlying cause could not be identified, carry a very poor prognosis. Some animals may die due to complications, like aspiration pneumonia,” states PetMD.com.
Find A Vet HOW TO articles are intended for informational purposes only. You should always consult with your veterinarian about any health issues affecting your dog.