Megaesophagus – The Serious Swallowing Problem That Can’t Be Ignored

Megaesophagus – The Serious Swallowing Problem That Can’t Be Ignored

German shepherds are the second most popular dog in the United States for many reasons.  A few of which include that they’re very athletic, make excellent working dogs as well as active family pets, and are highly trainable. 

They’re appreciated for their intelligence, beauty, loyalty, versatility, and protective nature.  As a herding breed, they make devoted family members that form unbreakable bonds with their people.  Lovers of the breed agree, there is no dog as special as a German shepherd.

Despite their strength and athletic ability, there are some breed associated disorders that they can suffer from.  Some of the more common disorders include hip dysplasia, degenerative myelopathy, osteoarthritis, spinal stenosis, perianal fistula, and megaesophagus. 

Recently we heard from one of our fans asking that we bring awareness to one of these conditions, megaesophagus.  Although megaesophagus is not uncommon in dogs, many owners are not as familiar with it as some other health problems.

What is Megaesophagus?

Megaesophagus is a condition in which the esophagus, the tube that carries food to the stomach after swallowing, becomes large and limp.  This results in the loss of motility, which diminishes the ability of the food to travel down the esophagus and reach the stomach.

This swallowing problem results in malnutrition and starvation, since the food can’t reach the stomach to be digested and the nutrients absorbed.  It can also cause a serious secondary health complication, aspiration pneumonia, which can be life threatening.

The type of megaesophagus usually seen in German shepherd puppies is a hereditary form due to a congenital defect with chromosome 12, as opposed to an acquired type that can impact dogs later in life.  Cases can me mild or severe.

Symptoms of Megaesophagus

The symptoms of hereditary megaesophagus begin in puppyhood, around the time puppies are weaned onto solid food to three months old. Puppies suffering from it regurgitate their meals immediately or within an hour of eating.  The puppies are small, frail, unhealthy, and at risk of starving to death.

In these puppies, the regurgitation, unlike vomiting, can be identified because it involves no retching, gagging, or lip licking, the common indicators of nausea. These dogs are not nauseous. Rather, their food can’t be swallowed normally so it’s released back up the esophagus and out of the mouth undigested.  

Symptoms of megaesophagus include:

  • Regurgitating food without bile
  • Gurgling when swallowing
  • Salivating when trying to swallow
  • Bad breath
  • Pneumonia, from aspirating food and water
  • Fever
    Rapid breathing
  • Abnormal lung sounds
  • Food avoidance
  • Pain at the base of the neck
  • Weakness
  • Starvation

Treatment for Megaesophagus

Megaesophagus is usually diagnosed with x-rays along with an evaluation of symptoms and the physical condition of the dog. Sadly, there is no cure. The best thing owners can do is manage the symptoms by trying to prevent regurgitation, malnutrition, and aspiration pneumonia.

Owners will need to help the dog swallow so that the nutrients in their food can reach their stomach without being regurgitated or aspirated into the lungs. This is accomplished by feeding them in an upright position.

One popular way to do this is through the use of a Bailey Chair. A Bailey Chair is a high chair of sorts that places the dog in an upright position while they eat and for a short time after meals to ensure the food reaches the stomach.  

There are many Bailey Chairs on the market and also plenty of instructional videos for people who want to make their own. Dogs that can’t tolerate this type of upright feeding may require a feeding tube.

These dogs also do best on a high calorie, high quality diet. The consistency of the food will depend on the individual pet and a vet will guide the owners. For example, some dogs do best with a soup like consistency while others can swallow small, soft meaty bites.   

Types of Megaesophagus

As mentioned, most German shepherd puppies are affected by the congenital, hereditary form of megaesophagus. However, there is a second type of megaesophagus called acquired megaesophagus, which is caused by an underlying health problem.

Both types of megaesophagus require a diagnosis from a veterinarian.  However, in acquired cases, a vet will also need to identify and treat the underlying cause of the problem.  Some causes of acquired megaesophagus include:

  • Trauma to the neck, brain, spinal cord
  • Addison’s disease
  • Inflammation
  • Toxin
  • Swelling
  • Myasthenia gravis (autoimmune disorder)
  • Muscle or nerve damage
  • Blockage by a foreign body
  • Tumor, cancer

Megaesophagus requires a medical diagnosis.  One should never try to diagnose the problem on their own, regardless if it’s a puppy or adult dog since some other health problems can cause regurgitation.

The prognosis dogs diagnosed will depend on the care and commitment of their owners, the dog’s ability to absorb nutrients, avoidance of life threatening aspiration pneumonia, and the severity of the swallowing malfunction. 

Some cases are mild while others so severe the puppy’s prognosis is not good.  Some puppies have been known to outgrow megaesophagus.  It also affects other breeds of dogs such as Irish Setter, Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever, Great Dane, Newfoundland, and Shar Pei.

Please pass along this important information about megaesophagus so you can bring awareness or help someone in need.

You may also like: Reasons Why Your Dog Might Be Vomiting And How To Treat It

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