Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia) in Cats

Summary

Difficulty swallowing, or dysphagia, is rarely observed in cats. The primary conditions associated with dysphagia in cats are often potentially life-threatening. As such, dysphagia is primarily only observed alongside more serious symptoms and signs of distress in cats. Medical conditions associated with dysphagia are more common in dogs than they are in cats.

Guidelines

Pet parents should not be concerned their cat may develop dysphagia. Since most of the conditions associated with this symptom are rare, it is unlikely most cats will ever experience difficulty swallowing.

If a cat seems to be suffering from dysphagia but does not have other notable symptoms, it is best to seek non-urgent veterinary care as a precaution. Since dysphagia in cats is associated with rare critical illnesses, it may be observed alongside the following other EMERGENCY symptoms:

• Labored breathing

• Pale gums

• Weakness and collapse

• Inability to walk

• Seizures

• Loss of consciousness

• Persistent pain, vocalizations, or distress

If any of these symptoms are present, seek veterinary attention right away.

Possible Causes

Dysphagia, while rare, is most commonly associated with the following conditions in cats:

• Hiatal hernia: a weak or loose spot in the diaphragm where the esophagus passes through. This allows abdominal organs to bulge into the chest cavity and put pressure on the esophagus. This pressure makes it difficult for food to pass by. 

• Esophageal stricture: narrowing of the esophagus, usually caused by built up scar tissue after injury to the inside of the esophagus.

• Esophageal dysmotility: the rhythmic, reflexive squeezing action of the esophagus is interrupted by a physiological or neurological disorder.

• Inflammation: swelling anywhere in the throat can put pressure on the esophagus, making it difficult to swallow.

• Injury: trauma caused to the swallowing apparatus.

• Tumor: the presence of a tumor in the esophagus or back of the throat preventing food from passing by easily.

Risk Factors

Difficulty swallowing in cats may be characterized as:  

• Congenital: present from birth

• Acquired: developed after birth

• Acute: symptoms arose recently and/or suddenly

• Chronic: symptoms have been present long-term

With all of these ranging from mild to severe depending on the case

Testing and Diagnosis

A cat presenting dysphagia usually requires the following diagnostics to determine the best course of action:

• Physical examination: the veterinarian will focus especially on looking inside the throat for any obvious blockage and palpate the neck and chest looking for abnormalities. 

• Blood work: this provides useful information about the pet’s overall health status and can help your vet focus on specific problem areas

• Diagnostic imaging: May include a combination of ultrasound, X-rays, fluoroscopy, CT scan or MRI imaging. Images of the head, neck, and chest may reveal the root cause of difficulty swallowing

• Esophagoscopy: a video scope of inside of the cat’s esophagus illustrates the interior of the lower throat and may show the source of the blockage

Similar Symptoms

Other symptoms that might be mistaken for dysphagia include: 

• Excessive and exaggerated swallowing

• Excessive and exaggerated gulping of air

• Loss of appetite

• Oral or dental pain

• Nasal congestion

Associated Symptoms

A cat with difficulty swallowing may also show symptoms like:

• Weight loss

• Unkempt or matted fur due to lack of grooming

• Frequent regurgitation

• Excessive salivation

As noted above, dysphagia in cats is rare and associated with more serious illnesses. Given this, dysphagia may be observed alongside emergency symptoms requiring immediate veterinary assistance.

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