A dog having a hard time swallowing may be experiencing a more serious health condition, like nerve damage; oral issues, like dental diseases; or the presence of a tumor or a foreign object. In addition to difficulty swallowing, dogs may have other symptoms, like drooling, coughing, refusing to eat, and regurgitating food.
If your dog is having trouble swallowing, take him to the veterinarian as soon as you notice the problem so he can get the treatment he needs. Trouble swallowing, also known as dysphagia in dogs, should never be ignored.
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Causes of dysphagia in dogs
There's a long list of medical conditions that could cause dysphagia in dogs, which is why it's so important to chat with your veterinarian when you see your dog having trouble swallowing.
Dogs love to chew and lick, and sometimes, they consume items that aren't good for them (think rocks, toys, or your socks). These foreign objects can get stuck in their esophagus, causing dogs to have problems swallowing. Dogs may have problems swallowing because of oral issues like jaw pain, tumors in their mouth, or dental diseases. Nerve damage to the head, tongue, or chewing muscles; trauma; or inflammation of the tongue, gums, and mouth could also be to blame.
One potential cause is a condition called megaesophagus, in which the esophagus expands abnormally, which can be caused by nervous system disorders, hypothyroidism, cancer, or foreign objects. Some breeds are more prone to megaesophagus, including German shepherds, Great Danes, Irish setters, Labrador retrievers, and Chinese Shar-Peis.
Symptoms of dysphagia
A dog having a hard time swallowing may be in pain and experiencing other symptoms. Symptoms of dysphagia in dogs include:
- Regurgitation of food
- Difficulty swallowing
- Weight loss
- Refusal to eat
- Bad breath
- Change in appetite
Dysphagia can lead to malnutrition if dogs refuse to eat and can be fatal if left untreated.
Prevent dysphagia in dogs
While you can't prevent swallowing issues in dogs that are caused by a medical condition, you can prevent other issues. Dogs will sometimes swallow foreign objects while chewing on bones or playing with toys at home or when outside on a walk, so always keep an eye on your dog when she has a toy, treat, or opportunity to eat something she shouldn't.
Some dogs gulp down food and water, causing them to choke, vomit, or have problems swallowing because they are inhaling it too quickly. You can make your dog slow down at dinnertime by serving her meal in a slow feeder, which is basically a toy that dispenses food as it's rolled around. This makes your dog use both her brain and her body while making her slow her pace.
Dogs might also be tempted to swallow food quickly when around other dogs because they perceive that there is competition for their meal. Separating dogs at dinnertime will prevent this competitive eating habit.
When to see a veterinarian
Anytime your dog is having a hard time swallowing, you should take him to a vet for a consultation. If possible, take a video of your dog swallowing to show your vet so he can see how your dog behaves at home.
A veterinarian will do a physical examination of your dog and may observe your dog eating or drinking so he can see her swallowing difficulties firsthand. He may do a neurological exam and may take X-rays of her head, neck, mouth, and chest to look for foreign objects, tumors, and other variables causing the swallowing issue. He may choose to run a blood test, take ultrasounds, or sedate your dog to do an oral exam.
Treating a dog having trouble swallowing
As with any health condition, treatment will depend on the diagnosis. Veterinarians may recommend dietary changes, like feeding your dog softer, moist food or feeding him from elevated food and water bowls so he can have an easier way to swallow.
If your dog swallowed a foreign object, vets may need to operate to remove it from his stomach or throat. Serious conditions may require surgery.