Managing Megaesophagus in Dogs

Dogs being fed upright in high chairs. While it may seem like an odd trend to the untrained eye, parents of dogs with megaesophagus know this scene isn't just staged for social media — it's an everyday necessity.

Certain breeds are born with this condition, which makes it difficult for them to digest food unless they eat in an upright position. Managing megaesophagus in dogs can be achieved through a special diet and, in some rare cases, surgery.

What Is Megaesophagus in Dogs?
Normally when a dog swallows, a muscular tube called the esophagus moves the food from their mouth to their stomach to be digested. In megaesophagus, dogs are unable to swallow food normally because their esophagus lacks the muscular tone and motility needed to move food and water. Instead, their esophagus dilates and food backs up, causing them to regurgitate the meal.

This condition is the most common cause of regurgitation in dogs. It's a congenital condition, meaning some dogs are born with it. Megaesophagus is a heritable disease in miniature schnauzers and wire-haired fox terriers, Newfoundlands, German shepherds, Great Danes, Labrador retrievers, Irish setters, shar-peis and greyhounds are also predisposed.
This condition can also be acquired secondary to another disease, like neurological or hormonal disorders, as well as trauma to the nervous system, blockage in the esophagus, severe esophageal inflammation or exposure to toxins.

In many cases, unfortunately, the cause is never determined.
What Are the Signs of Megaesophagus in Dogs?
The main indicator of megaesophagus in dogs is regurgitation fairly soon after eating. One thing to note is that regurgitation looks different from vomiting. Vomiting usually involves audible retching where the contents that come back up originate in the stomach or small intestines. With regurgitation, food, water and saliva come back up without retching and originates within the esophagus, usually without warning.

Other signs may include weight loss despite a voracious appetite, poor growth in puppies, excessive drooling or bad breath. Dogs with megaesophagus are at risk for aspirating regurgitated food into their lungs and developing aspiration pneumonia. Signs of aspiration pneumonia include cough, nasal discharge, fever, poor appetite and lethargy.

If your dog is experiencing any of these signs, consider making an appointment with your veterinarian for further evaluation as soon as possible.