A diagnosis of megaesophagus is always considered a death sentence. Well, this was way before advances in the management of the esophageal condition paved the way to better treatment and management options. Today, it is entirely possible for dogs to lead an otherwise better life than their predecessors.
What is Megaesophagus?
As the term implies, megaesophagus denotes an unusually large esophagus as a result of a loss of smooth muscle tone.
The esophagus is that part of the digestive tract that conveys food from the mouth to the stomach. It is a passageway, so to speak. It is composed of several bands of smooth muscles that allow it to push food down to the stomach. When food is in the mouth, the tongue pushes this bolus of food towards the back of the throat where it enters the esophagus. Once there, the smooth muscles go to work by forcing the bolus of food through its entire length until it enters the stomach.
Sadly, the problem with megaesophagus is that the smooth muscles are no longer contracting as efficiently as before or have completely lost their tone. When a dog eats or drinks, there is no force that will push the esophageal contents towards the stomach. As such the esophagus dilates in response to the bolus of food. Sadly, this is as far as it goes since there is no peristaltic movement pushing the food forward.
How Do I Know If My Dog Has Megaesophagus?
Typically, a dog that has megaesophagus will present with the following manifestations:
- Dog regurgitates either food or water or both
- Growth and developmental retardation in young dogs
- Unexplained weight loss in adult and older dogs
- Excessive salivation
- Gurgling behavior upon swallowing
- Bad breath or halitosis because of the trapped food in the esophagus
- Muscle weakness
- Signs of muscle wasting
- Signs of aspiration pneumonia: very fast breathing, fever, and abnormal lung sounds
What are the Common Causes of Esophageal Dilatation in Dogs?
Megaesophagus in dogs can be either congenital or acquired. If the condition is present in younger dogs, it is termed congenital megaesophagus. If it occurs later in life, it is usually considered as acquired megaesophagus. In both types of esophageal dilatation, a great majority of the causes are idiopathic, meaning the exact cause is unknown. However, for the congenital form of the disease, myasthenia gravis is one of the causes. For acquired esophageal dilatation, it can be due to the following.
- Tumor in the esophagus
- Parasitic infections
- Neuromuscular diseases such as myositis, distemper, and myasthenia gravis
- Inflammatory disorders of the esophagus
- The presence of foreign bodies in the esophagus
- Thallium and lead toxicities
- Hormonal diseases such as Addison’s disease and hypothyroidism
- Trauma or degenerative disorders of the brain or spinal cord
What is the Danger with Megaesophagus?
The main danger in megaesophagus is aspiration pneumonia. This can occur because of the presence of food in the esophagus. Owing to the proximity of the esophagus to the epiglottis which effectively covers the opening of the esophagus so that air breathed through the nose and mouth move passively to the dog’s lungs. Since food is trapped in the esophagus and cannot move to the stomach, there’s the risk of the food pushing upward, opening the epiglottis, and moving towards the trachea and the lungs. Because food is not supposed to be in the lungs, inflammatory changes occur, leading to aspiration pneumonia.
Dogs with aspiration pneumonia are at risk of severe oxygenation problems which can lead to heart attacks, stroke, and other potentially life-threatening conditions.
How is Megaesophagus Treated?
The goal of treatment is basically the management of the cause. The problem in this approach is that majority of megaesophagus cases have an idiopathic nature. But for those instances where the condition has a clearly identifiable cause, then it is possible for the vet to institute a variety of treatment options.
For instance, surgery may be needed to help remove a tumor, lesion, or scarring that may have developed in the esophagus. This should help restore esophageal functioning. The same is true for the presence of foreign bodies, their removal of which will lead to improved esophageal function.
Regardless of whether there is a definitive treatment for megaesophagus, one thing is clear: your dog needs nourishment as it tries to get through the ordeal. Your vet may order liquid gruel, blenderized slurries, small meatballs, and other high-energy, highly-palatable foods.
How Should I Care for My Dog That Has Megaesophagus?
As we have pointed in the beginning, getting a diagnosis of megaesophagus almost always spells the end for your dog. Today, you can still do something to better care for your dog that is diagnosed with the condition.
- Feed your dog with calorie-dense, high-quality dog food so that it will not need to eat as many to meet its nutritional requirements.
- Feed your dog smaller yet more frequent feedings throughout the day. Smaller-sized portions will help minimize aggravating the condition and prevent aspiration pneumonia.
- Make sure your dog doesn’t have access to any food and/or water outside its schedule or monitored feeding times.
- Train your dog on how to properly use a Bailey chair. This doggie furniture will keep your dog in an upright position while it is feeding. Make sure that your dog will be seated on the Bailey chair for about 30 minutes after its meal.
- If you cannot get a Bailey chair, you can prop your dog’s front legs on a block so that it is in a sitting or begging position. This helps increase the esophageal angle.
- If your dog has mild esophageal dilatation, you can simply feed it using a raised dog bowl. However, your dog should still be in a sitting position.
Over the years our understanding of megaesophagus in dogs has grown exponentially. No longer is the diagnosis a death sentence for our beloved pets. However, it still poses a real threat to the health, safety, and life of our dogs especially if we do not understand what megaesophagus is, what causes it, and what can we do about it.
Related Post: Dog Bowls
- Tammy Hunter, DVM, Megaesophagus, VCA
- Jennifer Coates, DVM, Tips for Feeding Dogs with Megaesophagus, PetMD
- Enlargement of Esophagus in Dogs, PetMD