What are Swallowing Difficulties?
If your cat is having trouble swallowing, it may be a sign of an underlying health condition that needs to be treated as soon as possible.
Every animal occasionally coughs or gags while eating, but if you notice your cat experiencing swallowing difficulties repeatedly, it’s time to see a veterinarian to determine the cause. Besides coughing and gagging, cats may also drool, make repeated attempts to swallow, or get in unusual positions to eat their food when experiencing this condition, called “dysphagia”. If left untreated, cats may begin to rapidly lose weight because they are unable to eat.
Symptoms of Swallowing Difficulties in Cats
There are three types of dysphagia, and each may present with specific symptoms.
- Struggling to open the mouth or hold food in the mouth
- Collecting food on the sides of the mouth
- Throwing head backward to eat
- Repeated attempts to swallow
- Spots of blood in the saliva
- Excessive chewing before swallowing attempts
- Unusual neck and head movements while eating
- Regurgitating food
- Weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Repeated attempts to swallow
Causes of Swallowing Difficulties in Cats
Each of the different types of dysphagia is caused by different factors.
Oral dysphagia can be caused by:
- Jaw or tongue paralysis
- Muscle swelling
- Mouth trauma
- Dental disease or infection
Pharyngeal dysphagia can be caused by:
- Enlarged lymph nodes near the pharynx
- Pharyngeal inflammation
Cricopharyngeal dysphagia can be caused by:
- Strained or deteriorating muscles
- Nerve damage
In some cases, the cause of dysphagia can be neurological. If your cat is suffering from a brain disorder or rabies, dysphagia may be one of the side effects of the condition.
Diagnosis of Swallowing Difficulties in Cats
If you notice your cat having trouble swallowing on repeated occasions, bring him into a veterinarian as soon as possible. Tell the veterinarian what symptoms you have noticed, when they first began, and how often they have occurred. If your cat has been injured or suffered any form of trauma, make sure you let the veterinarian know.
After discussing your cat’s symptoms, the vet may perform diagnostic tests to get a better idea of the cat’s health. First, a complete blood count, urinalysis and biochemical profile will be completed to determine if your cat has an infection or muscle injury.
Vets may also take X-rays of the mouth, skull, and chest, as well as an ultrasound of the pharynx. These tests are done to determine if there is any structural damage or growths. If growths are found, the vet will likely take a biopsy to test for cancerous cells.
At this point, the vet should be able to determine the cat has some form of dysphagia. But, the vet may still need to run a test, known as a fluoroscopic barium swallow, to see how your cat is swallowing. During this test, food material and barium is given to your cat while the vet observes him swallowing using a video X-ray device. This will help the vet figure out where the issue lies within the cat’s oral cavity and throat.
Treatment of Swallowing Difficulties in Cats
The treatment plan for dysphagia will depend on the underlying cause. If an infection is causing the issue, antibiotics will be prescribed, but if the issue is inflammation, steroids may be given instead. Both of these medications may need to be administered to the cat at home for up to ten days.
If a strained or contracted muscle is causing your cat to gag and cough up food, the vet may prescribe muscle relaxers to help this muscle relax and allow your cat to swallow.
If the cause is some sort of structural damage or abscesses, surgery may be required to correct the issue.
If the biopsy reveals there are cancerous cells within the abscesses, your vet will discuss different chemotherapy and radiation treatment options with you.
Finally, dental disease may need to be treated by removing the infected teeth and administering antibiotics.
Recovery of Swallowing Difficulties in Cats
Unless the cause of your cat’s swallowing difficulties was cancer, he or she should recover within one to two weeks. But, cats will have trouble eating food while they recover from dysphagia, so it’s your responsibility to make eating easier until they are well. Talk to your vet about how you can make your cat more comfortable and help him keep food down. For example, the vet may recommend you only feed the cat soft, mushy foods that will easy slide down the cat’s throat. Or, the vet may recommend you position the cat in a certain way while you feed him. In extreme cases when the cat has lost a significant amount of weight, the vet may keep your cat on a feeding tube while he recovers.
Any medication prescribed by the vet must be administered as advised. Be sure to bring your cat in for a follow-up so the vet can ensure everything is healing correctly.
Swallowing Difficulties Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
My cat has been vomiting up his food lately, a few minutes or longer after eating. Sometimes he's OK for a week and then it'll start happening again. One morning, after eating the evening before, he regurgitated his food as though it hadn't even gotten into his stomach. Then a few days ago he started excessively drooling and was in distress as though something was stuck in his throat. By the time I rushed to a veterinarian he was OK. I've spent nearly $1000 on x-rays etc. with no conclusive diagnosis.
It seemed to be worse with kibble so I stopped feeding him that. The only other thing he will eat is canned chicken "fancy feast", he refused to eat any of the food from the veterinarian. I'm wondering if it's a hernia or some condition causing a blockage between his oesophagus and stomach. He's a longhair Siamese and otherwise in excellent condition, good appetite, active and happy. It's definitely not hair balls.
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Cat chokes on solid food. Even miniscule quantities. But she is able to swallow liquids.
There are a few different causes for the symptoms you are describing, each with a different method of treatment; this may be caused by neurological problems (movement of oesophagus moves food back to mouth), tumours (blocking passage of food, but allowing liquids), foreign body, enlarged lymph nodes putting pressure on oesophagus, problems with the pharynx or another cause not listed. A visit to your Veterinarian would be required to identify the cause of the dysphagia and to come up with a treatment plan. In the meantime, try to slightly elevate Dotty’s food bowl so that she is eating with her head up; another option is to make small balls of food (quarter inch) and to push them to the back of the throat to see if they can be swallowed (but be careful, cats can have a strong gag reflex). Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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