My Dog Has Megaesophagus
What is Megaesophagus?
I had never heard of megaesophagus until my dog, Tyson, a Labrador Retriever, developed Mega esophagus and was diagnosed when he was about 13 years old and got a crash course about the symptoms and care required to manage the disease.
I started researching and learning everything I could and discovered how important it is to recognize the symptoms of megaesophagus. The symptoms can start out to be very mild, but if proper care and treatment are not provided, the condition will usually become steadily worse until it can cause the death of your dog! The earlier your dog is diagnosed the more likely you will be able to provide the proper care to help your dog live a long and healthy life. On this page I'm sharing my experiences and the resources I found for helping my dog.
All photos by Vicki Green - PNW Travels unless otherwise credited
Have You Ever Heard of Megaesophagus?
Have you ever known a dog with Megaesophagus?
Regurgitation vs Vomit
Our dog, Tyson had a history of several strokes and seizures. Sometimes immediately after one of these events he would appear to vomit. So since a stroke or seizure can cause dizziness, we thought when his food came back up it was due to dizziness and nausea.
His food come back up without warning, totally undigested and covered in slime. We didn't realize that this is a symptom of problems with his esophagus and that there is a difference between regurgitation and vomiting. The photo shows what regurgitated food looks like.
Vomit is digested or partially digested food that is usually yellow because of the presence of digestive fluids from the stomach. Vomiting is an active process usually preceded by gagging, heaving, and retching as the body actively expels stomach contents. On the other hand regurgitation is a passive process with food coming from the esophagus undigested and suddenly expelled, often without any retching sounds or warning.
Your veterinarian will want to do several tests to determine if your dog has megaesophagus and will also want to do tests to try to identify any underlying disease. The work-up will usually include blood tests, urine test and and x-ray of the chest.
Symptoms of Esophagus Problems
1. Regurgitation of water, mucous or food.
2. Loss of appetite or refusal to eat.
3. Weight loss.
4. Swallowing difficulty, exaggerated and/or frequent swallowing.
5. Frequent attempts to clear the throat with a "hacking" sound.
6. Sour and/or foul smelling breath.
Causes of Canine Megaesophagus
How does megaesophagus happen?
The muscles in the wall of esophagus normally contract and push food down from the mouth to the stomach. Megaesophagus occurs when the muscles in the wall of the esophagus become weak. The cause of the weakness is usually a complete or partial paralysis of the nerves leading to the muscles. The nerve damage may result from several causes. Some dogs are born with congenital megaesophagus and the symptoms become apparent at about the time they are weaned and begin to eat solid food. Other dogs develop the condition later in life as a result of other diseases or causes which is called acquired megaesophagus.
Dogs who are born with Megaesophagus
Congenital Megaesophagus can sometimes be caused by incomplete nerve development or can be caused by a condition called persistent right aortic arch (PRAA).
PRAA is a vascular ring abnormality in which the esophagus is trapped between a ring of fetal blood vessels and tissues which constricts it. The tissues normally should disappear just before or at birth, but they don't always do so. Usually the first symptoms appear at about 3 -4 weeks of age when the puppy is being weaned to solid foods.
Puppies with incomplete nerve development may outgrow the condition or it may be possible to have it surgically corrected. However, in many cases some residual regurgitation persists.
Older dogs who develop Mega Esophagus
Megaesophagus can be caused by other diseases and medical conditions. Laboratory tests can be done to determine if the megesophagus is caused by:
1. Myasthenia Gravis
2. Thyroid Disease
3. Addison's Disease.
Megaesophagus can also be caused by other neurological disorders and tumors. If the cause is determined, there may be treatment available for for the underlying disease which may help or resolve the megaesphagus, but often the damage to the esophagus is permanent. Sometimes all of the tests come back negative and the cause remains a mystery which is called "idiopathic" megaesophagus. All of Tyson's tests except for his thyroid function test came back negative. His thyroid was very slightly low, and we started him on thyroid medication, but it didn't seem to help.
Dangers of Megaesophagus
The biggest risk to your dog's health is aspirating the food or fluids from the esophagus into the lungs. This can result in aspiration pneumonia, a very serious and deadly condition. If your dog has megaesophagus, it is important to prevent aspiration pneumonia and to take your dog to the veterinarian immediately if your dog shows symptoms of aspiration pneumonia.
So what are the symptoms of aspiration pneumonia?
2. Discharge from the nose
Other life threatening problems that can be caused by Megaesophagus include dehydration, starvation and malnutrition.
Coping with Megaesophagus - How to keep your dog healthy and alive!
Feeding Your Dog in a Vertical Position
The most important thing to know is that your dog needs to be placed in a vertical feeding position immediately to avoid starvation and/or aspiration pneumonia.
IMPORTANT - this does NOT mean an "elevated bowl." Simply elevating the bowl does not place the esophagus in the proper position to allow gravity to work.
Vertical feeding can be accomplished in many ways. You can be creative! When Tyson was diagnosed it was explained that he needed to be fed upright immediately. We looked around at what we had available in our home and saw that we had a clean, new garbage can that we had used to store birdseed. We stuffed a blanket inside to pad it and it became Tyson's feeding "chair".
Here are some examples of what you can use:
1. Place your dog upright in a clean trash can cushioned with a blanket
2. Put your dog upright in your lap
3. Prop your dog up in a chair or sofa
4. Use a child's car seat
5. Create a harness attached to a wall
6. Build or buy a "Bailey Chair"
Your dog must remain in the chair for 20-30 minutes after feeding, drinking or taking medication to allow gravity to work.
It is also helpful to elevate your dog's head and shoulders when he or she is asleep to keep saliva and any food or water remaining in the esophagus from flowing into the trachea and into the lungs. This can be done by adding a pillow under your dog's bed to keep the body at a 45 degree angle or by making or purchasing a "Pro Collar".
Your veterinarian may also prescribe medications that will treat the underlying disease or help to protect the esophagus from further damage.
A Bowl to Help Keep Your Dog from Eating Too Fast
This stainless steel bowl with a raised center helps to prevent your dog from eating too fast.
Feeding dishes for dogs who eat too fast - Dogs with megaesphagus should eat slowly
Dogs with megaesophagus shouldn't eat too much too fast. Eating at a slower pace with frequent smaller meals helps to prevent the esophagus from becoming more extended and enlarged from the food. If your dog eats too fast, a feeding dish with an elevated center will help force your dog to eat slower. Or, many people who have a dog with megaesophagus feed their dogs by hand, with a spoon, or by shaping the food into small meatballs and feeding them one at a time.
Video Showing Elevated Feeding from a "Bailey Chair" or "Sit Chair" - Dogs with megaesophagus need to be fed in a vertical position
When a dog has megaesophagus, gravity must be used to move food though the esophagus so they need to be fed in an elevated position. Using a "Bailey Chair", which may also be called a "Sit Chair", is recommended for keeping the esophagus in the proper position whenever food, liquids or medications are given to your dog.
Make an Elevated Feeding Chair For Your Dog with Megaesophagus - Build your own "Bailey Chair" or "Sit Chair"
Design Your Own Sits Chair
My husband built Tyson his own version of a "Bailey Chair". We looked at photos of some "Bailey Chairs" on the internet that others had built and made some modifications to create his own version using some materials we had left over from some home improvement projects.
Tyson's Vertical Feeding "Bailey Chair"
The "Bailey Chair" - Tyson in his new "Bailey Chair"
Other Resources for Building or Buying a Bailey Chair
Donna & Joe Koch's dog, Bailey, was diagnosed with megaesophagus, so they designed a "chair" to help their dog eat in an upright position. Naturally they called it a "Bailey Chair" in honor of their dog. The chair helps to maintain a dog in the correct position for gravity to move food, drink, or medication through the esophagus to the stomach. There are several ways you can acquire a Bailey Chair:
You can contact the Koch's and they will send you a DVD or video of instructions for building your own Bailey Chair for $6.00 to cover costs. (see the helpful links section below)
eHow has instructions on how to build a Bailey Chair (see the helpful links section below)
Oleisa & Neal Moor have started building the chairs and sell chairs custom made for your dog for the cost of the materials (see the helpful links section below)
Tyson Trying Out His Bailey Chair the First Time
Making Your Dog Food Into a Slurry
Special Diets For Dogs with Megaesophagus
Most dogs with megaesophagus will need some modifications to their diet. Depending on the severity of their condition, your dog may need to change to a low-fat or low residue canned food diet. The dog will definitely need to be fed a high quality food. Sometimes adding liquid nutritional supplements like Ensure will also help.
Some dogs may be able to continue to eat their regular dog food mixed with water or other liquids and blended into a gruel the consistency of a milkshake. Other dogs do best when their food is moistened and shaped into small "meatballs". (The "meatballs" must be swallowed whole.) Each dog is different so it may take some experimentation to see what works best.
Other feeding tips:
Multiple small feedings, (3-4 meals per day) usually works better than 1 or 2 larger ones
Fluids and medications must be given in the vertical position as well.
Since blending the dog food to the right consistency can be hard on the motor of a blender, I recommend a heavy duty blender like this model.
A blender will help to make the dog's food the proper consistency - You may need a blender to make the dog food smooth
To make your dog's food into the proper consistency, you will probably need a blender. I admit I burned out the motor on an inexpensive blender and had to buy a more heavy duty model with more horsepower.
What to feed a dog with megaesophagus? - You may need to switch to a different food
What Dog Food is Best?
Some people continue to feed their dog the same food they were feeding him or her before and merely put it in a blender. Others find that it is helpful to switch their dog with megaesophagus to a prescription diet food, canned food or a homemade diet. A raw food diet is not recommended by most veterinarians who are knowledgeable about megaesophagus.
Dogs with megaesophagus should be fed a nutritious food that is easy to digest. Prior to Tyson's diagnosis of megaesophagus we had been feeding him Flint River Ranch Trout and Potato Formula. We continued to feed him the same dog food, but simply put it in the blender with some warm water or broth and some Ensure to help him put on some weight. Since each dog is diffferent, Ensure does not work well for all dogs. Flint River Ranch is made in the USA with human-grade food quality ingredients and is oven baked - not steam extruded which helps make it more easily digested. It worked well for Tyson, but it can't be overstated that each dog is different so it may take some experimentation to find the best food for your dog with megaesophagus.
Knox Gelatin Blocks Recipe for Dogs with Megaesophagus - Gelatin Cubes - Keep 'em hydrated with a tasty snack!
Knox Blocks Recipe
Many dogs with megaesophagus can't drink fluids normally without regurgitating. To keep adequate hydration some dogs may need to be given subcutaneous fluids. Other dogs can tolerate drinking liquids that have been thickened. Knox Blox made with Knox unflavored gelatin is another way that some dogs can stay hydrated and they make a great nutritious treat for those dogs who can drink water, too!
Here's the recipe:
1 cup cold low sodium chicken or beef broth
4 packages of Knox unflavored gelatin
3 cups of boiling liquid (water or a mixture of broth and water)
Pour a cup of cold broth into a 9 x 11 or 9 x 13 baking pan.
Sprinkle 4 packages of gelatin over the top and stir
Add 3 cups of boiling liquid and stir until the gelatin is disolved
Refrigerate until solid - approximately 3 hours
Cut the firm gelatin into dice sized blocks and store in the refrigerator
Your dog may hesitate to eat these at first, but usually once they try them, they love them!
Knox Gelatin Blocks
The main ingredient in the recipe for Knox blocks includes original unflavored Knox gelatin.
Make Knox Blocks with Knox Gelatin and Broth - Ingredients for making Knox Blox
You can use any type of broth your dog likes, but it is usually best to use the low sodium types.
Original Thick-it comes in a powder to be added to liquids. It is tasteless, but thickens liquids to a consistency that makes it easier to swallow.
Water Thickened with Thick-it - Thicken water or other liquids with Thick-it
Another product that some people find helpful to help their dog with megaesophagus drink water without causing problems is to thicken it with a product called Thick-it. When added to a liquid it thickens it and makes it heavier allowing it to move more easily throught the esophagus by gravity. It was developed for people with swallowing problems, but can also be used for dogs.
A ProCollar can be used to support and compress your dog's esophagus. ProCollars come in several sizes to fit any dog.
Support the Esophagus to Prevent Regurgitation While Sleeping - Keep Dogs with Megaesophagus from Regurgitating at Night
Many dogs with megaesophagus will benefit from wearing something to support their esophagus while they sleep, This helps to prevent the esophagus from filling with saliva or stomach contents. There are several different kinds to choose from. Pro Collars were designed originally to prevent pets from licking wounds and surgical incisions, but they can also be worn by your dog at night or anytime when your dog is sleeping to prevent regurgitation. Kong makes an inflatable collar or you can use a boppy pillow or make your own support collar from u shaped travel pillow by attaching a strap and velcro closure on the open side. With any of these support collars, keep the strap at the back and the cushioned pillow part in the front of your dog's throat.
Helpful Links - More Information About Megaesophagus
- Canine Megaesophagus Organization
An organization devoted to helping people who have a dog with megaesophagus. The site includes contact information for obtaining a DVD and instructions for building your own "Bailey Chair" or contact information for ordering one to be custom built fo
- Yahoo! Groups
A Yahoo Group of individuals who offer each other support and advice, share links to more information, and provide answers to questions.
- Mar-Vista Animal Medical Center
This is a website with a lots of great information including illustrations showing the difference between a normal esophagus and megaesophagus.
- The Pet Project Blog
A blog with links for instructions for building your own "Bailey Chair" or where you can purchase one custom made for your dog.
- How to build a Bailey Chair Instructions from eHow.com
This is a link to instructions for building a Bailey Chair for your dog.
- Facebook Canine Megaesophagus Support Group
A Facebook Support Group for Canine Megaesophagus
In Memory of Tyson
Across the Rainbow Bridge
Gone but not forgotten
Unfortunately our dear Tyson crossed the rainbow bridge in 2010, we miss him terribly, but have many fond memories. Tyson was approximately 13 years old, so he lived about as long as can be expected for a large dog. Many other dogs with mega-esophagus have lived for many years with the condition if managed carefully. If your dog has megaesophagus, make sure to utilize the resources and support that can be found in the links above. To learn more about Tyson's adventures, you can read more about him at Tyson the Traveling Labrador Retriever.
© 2010 Vicki Green