Symptoms of acid reflux in dogs resemble those of other gastrointestinal ailments, so if a dog exhibits any signs of digestive upset, it's important to see the veterinarian for a physical exam to investigate the cause. Some issues of the digestive system may be temporary, such as a reaction to dog food or something they ate that disagreed with them. However, chronic vomiting or regurgitating needs to be investigated.
An increase in acid production leading to acid reflux might only show up in minor symptoms initially, but this condition can get worse without treatment. More serious signs will be evident if there is severe inflammation of the esophagus.
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What is acid reflux in dogs?
Canine gastroesophageal reflux disease, often referred to as GERD, is the dog health equivalent of acid reflux in humans. GERD results from an uncontrolled flow — in reverse — of intestinal fluids or gastric juices into the esophagus. The esophagus is the tube transferring solids and liquids from the throat into the stomach. The harsh gastric acid and bile salt can eventually damage the esophagus's protective lining, leading to inflammation and pain.
While GERD occurs more often in younger dogs, all dogs are vulnerable to a buildup of stomach acid that can lead to GERD. Dogs with kidney disease are more likely to develop GERD. Additionally, certain breeds, such as Boston terriers, Shar Peis, boxers, and English bulldogs, are more prone to inherited disorders of the stomach, which can cause reflux.
Dog vomiting versus regurgitation
While a primary symptom of canine acid reflux involves throwing up, it's regurgitation of food rather than vomiting. Since it can be hard to differentiate vomiting versus regurgitating, it's important to inspect what comes up, watching the dog carefully when they are throwing up.
Regurgitation usually occurs suddenly and without warning. It's generally much quicker than vomiting. With vomiting, the dog often suffers from nausea, appears sick beforehand, and will heave much more actively. Regurgitated matter is undigested, looking like the food the dog consumed after chewing. Vomit, consisting of the dog's stomach contents, appears partially digested. If it contains bile juices, characterized by yellow fluid, it's almost certainly vomit.
Some dogs can have a disorder of the esophagus, such as megaesophagus, which causes regurgitation. A dog can be born with this, or it may develop secondary to other medical conditions.
Symptoms of acid reflux in dogs
Besides gagging or throwing up, signs of canine acid reflux may include loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss. The dog might experience pain while swallowing and may whine or otherwise seem uncomfortable while eating. Bad breath may also be observed due to the buildup of acid. Lethargy and gastrointestinal noises also could indicate GERD. Dogs with severe cases of GERD might show excessive salivation and run a fever.
Diagnosis and treatment of GERD in dogs
A photo of the contents of the dog's recent upheavals will help the veterinarian better determine whether the dog is vomiting or regurgitating. For a definite diagnosis, veterinarians will likely conduct an esophagoscopy. In this procedure, a narrow, tubelike instrument containing a camera (called an endoscope) is used to view the dog's esophagus. The pictures show whether or not the esophageal lining is damaged, which is the most obvious evidence of GERD. Bloodwork will also be done to rule out other health issues, such as kidney disease.
Treatment may include dietary and feeding schedule changes. The veterinarian might also recommend a low-protein, low-fat kibble as well as feeding smaller, more frequent meals, with the dog to be fed several times daily rather than in one or two meals. A variety of medications may be prescribed to improve stomach content flow, including proton-pump inhibitors (antacids), such as omeprazole, as well as sucralfate, which helps protect the delicate lining of the esophagus.
The bottom line
Like acid reflux in humans, canine gastroesophageal reflux disease, often referred to as GERD, can lead to pain, discomfort, and more serious problems if not treated promptly. Temporary causes of gastroesophageal reflux can be from eating a food that made them uncomfortable. Other causes of acid reflux in dogs can be genetic or from something like kidney disease. Symptoms such as frequent and sudden regurgitation, pain while swallowing, and decreased appetite may be indicators of GERD. Bloodwork and a procedure called an esophagoscopy may be needed to diagnose this condition. Treatment may include diet changes, antacids, and medications to help protect the lining of the esophagus.