Megaesophagus in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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jack russell terrier in bailey chair with dog regurgitationMegaesophagus in dogs is a disease that can affect various mammalian species including humans, dogs, and cats. Often referred to as Mega E or ME, this condition tends to cause consistent episodes of regurgitation.

If you have a dog who has been diagnosed with ME then you’ll have to make a lot of lifestyle changes to accommodate their condition. From treatment to living with this condition, in this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about megaesophagus in dogs.

An Enlarged Esophagus: What is Megaesophagus in Dogs?

Characterized by the enlargement and dilation of the esophagus, hypomotility, regurgitation, and weight loss. Canine megaesophagus is a condition which tends to affect dog breeds like the Great Dane, Irish setter, Labrador Retriever, and German Shepherd.

But, what makes megaesophagus so dangerous for dogs? Well, first we’ve got to understand the anatomy of the esophagus!

Anatomy 101: What Does the Esophagus Do?

The esophagus is a long tubular organ that’s responsible for moving food down to the stomach. To do this, the muscles of the esophagus create a peristaltic movement in a downward motion. Embedded in the mucosa of the esophagus are glands that secrete mucus. This mucus is what allows a bolus of food to pass efficiently into the stomach.

It is important to know that the esophagus is actually composed of striated muscles. Whereas, other digestive organs such as the stomach, is composed of smooth muscle. Striated muscles are contractile muscles that are under voluntary control. This means that the striated muscles in the esophagus propel a food bolus down to the dog’s stomach.

So, What’s the Problem for Dogs with an Enlarged Esophagus?

When a dog has a dilated esophagus, this implies that they are unable to properly “swallow” food. And, as we will discuss later on, this can be due to the fact that there is a lack of motility in the striated muscles of the esophagus.  The biggest problem for dog’s with an enlarged esophagus is regurgitation.

Dog Regurgitation

Regurgitation is a passive process where undigested food will forcefully be sent up back through to the esophagus. As it is a passive and sudden process, an animal regurgitating may aspirate or inhale small amounts of fluid (or food) into their trachea. Thus this will lead to aspiration pneumonia which can cause lung abscesses or bacterial infections.

Megaesophagus dog esophagus anatomy

Is it Genetic? What Causes this Disease

There are two main causes of Megaesophagus in dogs. The first is referred to as congenital megaesophagus and the second is acquired megaesophagus.

Certain dog breeds like the Newfoundland, Fox terriers, Miniature Schnauzer, Irish setters, and Chinese Shar-Pei are are at a higher risk of developing this condition.

Young dogs with a genetic predisposition to megaesophagus will often have poor vagal nerve development in their esophagus. And this is what often leads to hypomotility and dilation!

However, certain dog breeds like the Wire-Haired Fox Terriers may develop secondary megaesophagus as a result of congenital myasthenia gravis. This neurological condition is said to cause generalized muscle weakness as it occurs due to low amounts of acetylcholine receptors.

On the other side of the spectrum, dogs do not need to have a genetic predisposition to acquire megaesophagus. Adult dogs who have sustained severe nerve damage are likely to acquire megaesophagus in certain situations.

Next, it is important to note that acquired megaesophagus can be broken down into two categories: Acquired idiopathic and acquired secondary. 

So what does that mean? Well, idiopathic simply means that the disease has occurred spontaneously and no definitive cause has been identified. Idiopathic megaesophagus is believed to be the most common form of this condition seen in older dogs.

Acquired secondary megaesophagus simply means that the dog has gotten an enlarged esophagus as a result of another more primary disease. For example, dogs with Addison’s disease, myasthenia gravis, neoplasia, and vascular ring anomaly may develop secondary megaesophagus.

From a Drippy Nose to Vomiting! Symptoms of the Megaesophagus Dog

A classic sign of megaesophagus in dogs is regurgitation. Now regurgitation is a lot different from vomiting so don’t get the two confused.

Vomiting is a process where a dog will eject partially digested food and this occurs as the vomit originates from the stomach. Regurgitation is the process where a dog will eject undigested food, that is, food that has not yet entered the stomach.

Now, keep in mind that regurgitation is not the only symptom of ME in dogs. Other common symptoms associated with this condition include:

  • Halitosis: extreme bad breath
  • Nasal discharge
  • Consistent coughing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fever
  • Weight loss (anorexia)

How Does My Vet Know if My Dog Has this Condition?

If you suspect that your dog may have megaesophagus, then it’s good to get an idea on how your veterinarian may diagnose this condition. Upon your first vet visit, your veterinarian will conduct a full physical examination. They will conduct a TPR (Temperature, Pulse, and Respiration).

The goal of the TPR will be to see if your dog has a fever or not and to listen to the lung sounds. It is important to remember that consistent regurgitation of food can lead to aspiration pneumonia. Aspiration pneumonia is a serious condition where food enters the respiratory pathway. Aspiration pneumonia can be heard as harsh lung sounds and crackles.

Your veterinarian will also very likely suggest taking plain thoracic radiographs. The process of taking an x-ray will all your veterinarian to examine the lung region for any signs of fluid. So, radiographs are important in determining if your pet has aspiration pneumonia.

Megaesophagus in Dogs needing sucralfate for dogs

Furthermore, radiographs allow veterinarians to view the size of the structure of the esophagus. Should the esophagus appear dilated, then this may be evident as megaesophagus.

Now in addition to radiographs, your veterinarian will conduct a diagnostic blood-work up. The diagnostic workup will very likely include a combination of hematology, complete blood count, blood chemistry, and urinalysis.  Diagnostic tests such as these are important, as it will allow your veterinarian to create a list of differential diagnoses which may be causing the enlarged esophagus.

Should your veterinarian not find conclusive results, then he or she may recommend more tests like the acetylcholine receptor antibody test, thyroid testing, as well as ACTH stimulation testing.

Does My Doggie Need a High Chair? Treatment for Enlarged Esophagus in Dogs

Have you ever seen those dogs on Facebook sitting on a high chair? Well, there’s a reason for that! The treatment of megaesophagus consists of both a medical and dietary management.

To begin with, a dog with megaesophagus will require a high-caloric diet that is low in fiber and fat. It is not recommended that pet owners feed their dog on a raw diet as this can increase the risk of aspiration pneumonia and bacterial infections.

An important thing veterinarians insist is that dogs with a dilated esophagus need to be fed in an upright position. They may need to be held in the position for a minimum of 30 minutes to ensure that all food descends into the stomach.

In regards to medical management, your veterinarian will create an appropriate treatment based on your dog’s individual needs. However, for the most part, vets will offer therapeutic treatment to help owners manage the condition.

For dogs who have developed acquired secondary megaesophagus, it is likely that your veterinarian will consider using anticholinesterase drugs. These drugs may be used only if the AChR antibody titer test comes out as positive.

Sucraflate for Dogs

Dogs with megaesophagus will experience a lot of regurgitation. So, during the process of regurgitation, it can be quite common for the stomach acids to enter the esophagus.

In order to prevent ulceration either in the esophagus or stomach, your veterinarian may prescribe sucralfate for dogs.

Sucralfate is a drug that’s often given to pet patients who are currently on NSAIDs. In addition, it is used to treat as well as prevent ulcers in dogs.

The Changes You’ll Need to Make

As part of the treatment and management plan, there will be a few lifestyle changes you will need to make.

The Bailey Chair

Now you’ve probably seen this popular doggy high- chair all over the internet! As we mentioned before, dogs with megaesophagus need to be placed in an upright (vertical) position during meal times. This allows the food bolus to use the force fo gravity to enter the stomach.

So, to make the lives of both pet and pet parents easier, one company made this whole process easier! Known as Bailey’s Chair, these chairs are customed designed to meet every dog’s needs! It allows dogs to sit comfortably in an upright position and it makes meal time for pet parents much easier.

Neck Pillows

A dog with megaesophagus will also require the support of the esophagus during nap or bedtimes. The neck pillow is often a soft blow up pillow that pushes the esophagus to an almost vertical angle.

They are essential to managing your dog’s condition as in the night your dog’s saliva and leftover food may creep up and pool in the esophagus. A sleeping dog may accidentally aspirate pooled liquid thus leading to aspiration pneumonia. So, this is why it is important to invest in a neck pillow for your pooch.

Megaesophagus dog needing bailey chair

Feeding A Dog with Megaesophagus

 What should I feed my dog? kibble, canned food, or raw? There’s no doubt, that pet owners are going to worry about meeting their dog’s dietary requirements. It is true, that feeding a dog with megaesophagus will require hard and work and patience. Nevertheless, we are here to help! Here are some few tips and tricks you can use when feeding your dog with megaesophagus.

  1. Salmon Oil: Salmon oil is rich in omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, not only does it act as a lubricant for your dog’s esophagus. But, it also has strong antioxidant properties! Make sure you add a few teaspoons of Vet’a Preferred Salmon Oil to your dog’s meals!
  2. Sometimes dogs with acquired megaesophagus may develop secondary problems like inflammation and pain. So, why not add a yummy natural alternative to alleviate this problem! Honest Paws offers an array of CBD oil-based products that can help with all sorts of problems like pain and inflammation. On top of that, it can boost your pet’s immune system making them live a healthier longer life!
  3. Make meatballs! Yes, you can mash up your pets food and mix it in with a binding agent like oats. By feeding your pet soft meatballs, this will allow food to pass easily down to their stomach.
  4. Check out Honest Kitchen! Honest Kitchen is a line of dehydrated dog food that’s completely balanced and healthy. All you need to do is add water to their dry powered and voila! You’ve got a savory stem for Fido. Feeding your dog food that has a similar consistency of stew or soup will allow food to flow easily through your pet’s esophagus.

Dog DNA Testing for Megaesophagus?

Unfortunately, the genetic markers for megaesophagus are still currently being researched. This means that there are no available genetic tests that can determine if your pooch is at high risk of inheriting this disease. Nonetheless, Embark Dog DNA tests can analyze your dog’s genome and test for over 160 inherited diseases.

As we mentioned earlier, dogs with neuromuscular conditions or endocrine disorders may be more at risk of developing acquired megaesophagus. Fortunately, Embark Dog DNA tests are able to test for an array of neuromuscular, metabolic, muscular, and skeletal disorders.

Helping your Pooch Learn to Live with this Disorder

Megaesophagus is truly a dangerous condition that needs to be monitored consistently. Unfortunately, there is no cure for the disease, particularly if it is inherited. However, with proper care and lifestyle changes, you will be able to improve your dog’s quality of life.

Common Question on ME in Dogs

What is Megaesophagus?

Is ME fatal to dogs?

How do I know if my dog has megaesophagus?

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