Megaesophagus is a condition affecting the esophagus — the “tube” that leads from your mouth to your stomach (and your windpipe branches off.) It’s a condition that can be inherited, meaning it’s present at birth, or it may be acquired, meaning the dog spontaneously develops this condition later in life.
Certain breeds, such as great danes, are genetically predisposed to this condition, but any dog can develop this condition and at any age. It’s often associated with autoimmune disorders. My little Miniature Pinscher Kota suffers from a Lupus-like autoimmune disorder and megaesophagus is one of her many symptoms. Unfortunately, as of late, her condition has been getting worse, so we’ve had to develop some new routines in an effort to manage this potentially deadly condition.
In a healthy dog (or any other mammal, for that matter), the muscles in the esophagus work to move the food from the dog’s mouth to its stomach. In fact, you could eat or drink upside down and the muscles would work against gravity to pull the food and water into your stomach.
In dogs with megaesophagus, the muscles don’t work properly. If you attempted to feed a dog or human with megaesophagus while upside down, the food would never reach the stomach; the patient would probably choke.
Dogs with megaesophagus must be upright to eat and they must remain upright for a few minutes after eating, to allow gravity to pull the food into the stomach. Unfortunately, swallowing can also be affected and these dogs are more prone to choking and inhaling food/water (aspiration, which can lead to aspiration pneumonia.)
These special needs pets use a device called a Bailey chair (plans are widely available online), which serves to keep the dog in an upright position during meals. Since my dog Kota is also partially paralyzed, she cannot use a Bailey chair, so we use a dog bed with one end propped up using a large rolled-up towel.
Managing megaesophagus can be extremely difficult. Recently, Kota has had problems with choking if she eats more than a few bites at a time (I believe the food is backing up in her esophagus; it’s not flowing into her stomach fast enough. Once it backs up to the area where her windpipe branches off, she starts experiencing problems breathing.) She already required hand-feeding due to the fact that her jaw doesn’t work properly. But now, we must feed her 4 or 5 small meals per day instead of 1 or 2 large meals. Her meals are in liquid form. This is ideal for dogs with megaesophagus, as chunks of food can get caught in the esophagus, causing issues with choking and regurgitation.
We also discovered that feeding smaller meals has virtually eliminated her tendency to regurgitate after meals — a major benefit, as it’s hard to get enough food into her body; we don’t need to be losing a portion of each meal to regurgitation!
With proper management, a dog with megaesophagus can live a long, fulfilling life. Though it can be an extremely frightening condition for pet and owner alike, as a bit of trial and error is required in order to perfect your feeding routine. As I mentioned, we’ve already had a few choking incidents, but we’re hopeful that this will resolve as we feed more frequent, more-watery meals, all while closely monitoring Kota’s breathing, swallowing and even the color of her tongue (her tongue turns bluish, and then grey-white if she’s beginning to choke, so with careful monitoring we can pause feeding and work to clear her airway if it appears that she’s running into trouble.)
Do you have a dog with megaesophagus? If so, feel free to discuss your tips, questions and comments below!
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