A closer look: Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia) in Dogs
Swallowing is a complex function involving coordination of nerves and muscles and the process can be voluntary or involuntary. Any injury or disease of the mouth or throat has the potential to interrupt normal swallowing. Nervous and/or muscular dysfunction may also impact the swallowing apparatus.
Dysphagia may be further characterized by the location where the difficulty swallowing is occurring within the mouth or esophagus.
Oropharyngeal dysphagia presents with difficulty getting food into the mouth, or it immediately falls out of the mouth.
Cricopharyngeal dysphagia presents with food being eaten but repeated attempts to swallow are unsuccessful, resulting in gagging or retching. Food may be retained in the oral cavity if it cannot be swallowed.
Esophageal dysphagia presents with food being eaten and swallowed, but then regurgitated shortly afterwards.
The causes of dysphagia can be considered in different categories.
Functional dysphagia relates to failure of the complex interplay between muscles and nerves that govern the swallow reflex.
Structural dysphagia relates to a physical obstruction of the food passage.
Severe oral pain sometimes results in dysphagia.
Dysphagia is a common symptom in dogs but the severity and prognosis varies. Dysphagia alone is not an emergency but is linked to aspiration pneumonia which carries life-threatening complications. Dogs with chronic dysphagia often have severe weight loss. Dogs with signs of dysphagia benefit from prompt veterinary attention.
Dysphagia varies significantly in severity. Pain dysphagia, while distressing, is usually less severe and easier to treat than other causes of dysphagia. Structural dysphagia is often sudden onset as seen with foreign bodies or injury. Functional causes of dysphagia such as neuromuscular disorders are often difficult to resolve and treatment focuses on managing the symptoms and assisting feeding. Functional causes are often progressive.
Testing and diagnosis
Investigation of dysphagia involves a combination of:
- Physical examination
- Blood work
- Muscle biopsies
- CT scan
- Contrast fluoroscopy
Treatment options vary significantly depending on the underlying disease but include:
- Assisted feeding
- Pain management
Medical treatment of specific disease
- Antibiotics for infection
- Steroids for inflammatory, or immune-mediated conditions
- Medication for myasthenia gravis
Surgical treatment of specific disease
- Foreign body retrieval
- Dental surgery
- Repair of jaw bone abnormalities
- Abscess drainage
- Tumor removal
Dysphagia can be mistaken for other symptoms which interfere with the eating process.