You probably don't think much about swallowing your food, but the next time you're eating your lunch, consider how your esophagus moves your food along its way. Sometimes the esophagus doesn't work, meaning the food can't go anywhere and sits in the esophagus, a condition known as megaesophagus. There's no cure for this condition, but if your dog has megaesophagus, you can manage the condition with food, medicine and a bit of ingenuity.
A Dilated Esophagus
When the esophagus loses its muscle tone, it can't propel food to the stomach, a process referred to as peristalsis. The loss of muscle town causes the esophagus to enlarge, so food doesn't move when it reaches the esophagus. Any dog can develop this condition, however a few breeds -- Irish setter, German shepherd, Labrador retriever, Great Dane, Newfoundland, miniature schnauzer and Shar-Pei -- are more prone to it. A dog may be born with it or he may develop it as an adult.
Usually the cause is idiopathic, or unknown, though sometimes it may present as a result of another disease, such as hypoadrenocorticism, esophagitis and hypothyroidism. Symptoms almost always include regurgitation -- different from vomiting because the food never reaches the stomach -- and often, weight loss. Aspiration pneumonia is common in dogs with megaesophagus because it's easy for the food sitting in the esophagus to make its way into the lungs; it's a normal cause of death for dogs with megaesophagus.
Food for Megaesophagus
The type and consistency of food your dog eats can make a difference in how he deals with megaesophagus. He may tolerate a low-fat diet better in the beginning of treatment, since high-fat diets can prompt regurgitation. If cooking for your dog is important, an animal nutritionist should guide your choices, as certain foods, such as rice, may be difficult for a dog to tolerate.
In addition to playing with what your dog eats, you probably will have to experiment with its form. Some dogs do well on a liquid diet, while some are able to process canned food better. Others find success eating food of a consistency to form meatballs, and rarely, a dog will be fine on dry food. Trial and error will help you discover what your dog will tolerate best. Regardless of his food's form, one or two feedings a day won't work for him; a dog with megaesophagus should eat between three and six small meals a day.
Eating and Drinking Upright
Gravity is your friend when it comes to dealing with megaesophagus. A Bailey chair, which looks like an open-ended box, is a specially made chair that allows a dog to eat sitting upright. This helps pull the food down his esophagus, instead of sitting in one place. If a Bailey chair isn't an option, a step ladder may fill in, placing the food on the third or fourth step, so the dog has to eat in a vertical position. The dog should stay in his upright position for at least 20 minutes to give the food time to make its way to his stomach. If positioning doesn't work, the vet can insert a feeding tube into your dog's stomach for feeding, bypassing his esophagus.
When it's time to drink water, it also should be offered from a vertical condition. Your dog should remain upright at least 5 minutes after drinking to allow the water to enter his stomach. Don't allow him access to water bowls or other water sources at low levels.
There are some medications your vet may prescribe to help the condition. Antacids are useful to minimize esophageal damage, while nausea medication may make your dog feel better. One medication, metoclopramide, targets muscle tone in specific areas of the esophagus. It's important to understand the symptoms of aspiration pneumonia -- coughing, lethargy and fever -- since it's a serious, potentially deadly, condition that's a common threat of megaesophagus.