What are Congenital Megaesophagus?
The small tube that connects from your dog’s mouth to his stomach is the esophagus. The walls of the esophagus have muscles that move like waves in order to push the food to your dog’s stomach. In dogs with congenital megaesophagus, their esophagus is lacking in muscle tone; while a typical esophagus will appear like a “muscular hose”, the esophagus of a dog with megaesophagus will look like a thin tube. Without the muscle of a typical esophagus, the food your dog eats will sit in his esophagus rather than travel to the stomach, leading him to regularly regurgitate his food.
Congenital megaesophagus is a condition that occurs in dogs at birth where the esophagus is lacking in muscle, leading to the dog regurgitating his food.
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Symptoms of Congenital Megaesophagus in Dogs
Symptoms of congenital megaesophagus are typically first seen when puppies are weaned and start to eat solid food; the most obvious symptom is likely that your dog will regularly regurgitate his food. In most cases, a problem will be evident by the time your dog is three months of age. In more mild cases, the symptoms may not be evident for up to one year. Other symptoms include:
- Excessive salivation
- Trouble swallowing
- Failure to thrive in puppies
- Aspiration pneumonia, also known as inhalation pneumonia (happens when your dog inhales into his lungs an infected material (likely food in the case of a dog with megaesophagus)
Megaesophagus is a congenital abnormality in the esophagus of your dog. Two other congenital conditions in the esophagus of dogs include:
- Vascular ring anomalies: this is when the esophagus is constricted by other tissue; this is more likely in Boston Terriers, German Shepherds and Irish Setters
- Cricopharyngeal achalasia: this is when the throat’s cricopharyngeal muscle won’t relax when swallowing; occurs in the toy breeds
Causes of Congenital Megaesophagus in Dogs
Congenital megaesophagus is typically due to abnormal nerve development in your dog’s esophagus. This leads to the muscles being unable to carry the food that your dog eats from his mouth to his stomach. Breeds that are more likely to have congenital megaesophagus include:
- Chinese Shar-Peis
- Fox Terriers
- German Shepherds
- Great Danes
- Irish Setters
- Labrador Retrievers
- Miniature Schnauzers
Diagnosis of Congenital Megaesophagus in Dogs
Your veterinarian will conduct an examination of your dog and ask you about the symptoms you have noticed and for how long they have been present. Should your dog be showing signs of a congenital condition of his esophagus, your veterinarian will have several options available to confirm the diagnosis. These include:
- Contrast imaging
- Radiography (this may show that your dog’s esophagus is filled with gas and distended)
- Fluoroscopy (this may show how the esophagus of your dog is functioning differently)
- A 3-D CT scan
To confirm that the megaesophagus is congenital, your veterinarian may also consider an endoscopy or endocrine function testing. Your veterinarian will also examine your dog to ensure that he is not suffering from aspiration pneumonia, a common infection for those with congenital megaesophagus.
Treatment of Congenital Megaesophagus in Dogs
There is no cure for megaesophagus. There are a few things that you can do to best help your dog:
- Feed your dog a liquid diet or a diet of easily digestible, soft food. Food should be high in both protein and in calories
- Provide small quantities of food to your dog on a frequent basis; some dogs may do best with the food pureed and others may be more successful with wet food rolled into small meatballs
- Water should also be given in small amounts on a frequent basis
- Have your dog eat in an elevated position where your dog is standing on his hind limbs; this will allow gravity to help the food he has eaten travel to his stomach
Should your dog develop aspiration pneumonia during any time in his treatment, your veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics.
Recovery of Congenital Megaesophagus in Dogs
Congenital megaesophagus will require ongoing management. It is key that you work closely with your veterinarian on finding a diet that will provide your dog with the nutrients that he needs and a way to ensure that his food gets to his stomach, for example by having your dog eat in an elevated position.
The interval at which your veterinarian will request a follow up visit will depend on the severity of your dog’s condition. During follow up visits, your veterinarian can examine your dog to make sure he is getting the nutrition he needs.
As aspiration pneumonia is a common problem for dogs living with megaesophagus, it will be important for your veterinarian to make sure that your dog’s lungs are clear. Aspiration pneumonia can be fatal, so it will be helpful to gain a good understanding from your veterinarian as far as what symptoms to watch for in your dog so that he will have the best chance of recovery with early treatment.
Congenital Megaesophagus Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
How do you know for sure if your dog has this condition? Our puppy is showing symptoms but we want to know for sure. She has trouble breathing and likes to keep her head up in the air. We do steam showers which helps her breath. She seems like she is in pain for she cries a lot. We have brought her to the vet and they aren't doing much to help her. I would like to know what other things we can do to help her. None of her other siblings have this and she was born without a cord attached and not in a sac.
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I have had my dog for about 4 years. He has always had stomach problems. He doesn't throw up everyday but regurgitates after about every meal. Often he is able to catch it in his mouth and swallow it again. He throws up probably about 2-4 times a month. Could this be related to congenital megaesophagus? Would you suggest similar treatments?
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My fiance and I got a huskey/German shepherd mis about 2 weeks ago, we found out recently he has megaesophagus, we've done everything the vet has said, and he has been throwing up everything he eats, we've done everything we know to do and what the vet has said. He's looking weight, and I hate seeing him like this. Is there anything else we could do? We've changed his diet, we hold him up right when he gets done eating for 20 minutes like the vet said to do and we can't get him to hold anything down. We can't afford to take him back to the vet and I don't want him to suffer. What else could we do?
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Hello, I fell in love with a female puppy at the Humane Society a couple of weeks back. She was brought back to the shelter because they found out she has Megaesophagus. My husband and I feel that we can take care of her but I need vet advice and guidance. Will they cover her with insurance or because it's pre-existing they won't? Is it possible that she will grow out of it? Will it impair her physical abilities like hikes and long walks in nature? I would love any bit of advice before moving forward with the adoption. Thank you!
Megaesophagus may be primary or secondary in nature, but in a puppy the chances are that it is idiopathic; treatment is centered around supportive and symptomatic treatment try to avoid aspiration pneumonia. Feeding affected dogs with elevated food bowls or placing them in a Bailey Chair can help a lot; if a dog has secondary megaesophagus, treatment of the primary condition may improve the symptoms of megaesophagus. The big question is regarding pet insurance; each company is different, some will cover dogs apart from the megaesophagus and associated problems (like aspiration pneumonia) and others will not cover at all (call a few companies and ask - its free to get a quote). Apart from this, there is no reason for a dog not to have a full life if managed well; however there is still a high morbidity and mortality rate associated with this condition. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
We just had to put our dog to sleep due to this disease and she went from weighing 16 lbs to only weighing 7 lbs at her death. She literally starved to death basically because she couldn't keep any food down and was vomiting non stop.
She would seem to want food but wouldn't eat or as we know now( couldn't eat). It was horrible seeing her go through what she did before we finally figured out it was Megaesophagus.
In the end it cost us $2600.00 just to be them old they couldn't help her.
This was extremely fast and helpful! Thank you so much!
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