Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia) in Dogs

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3 min read

Key takeaways

Difficulty swallowing in dogs, known as dysphagia, is a common symptom with many different underlying triggers.

  • Dysphagia involves either disruption of the nerve signals involved with swallowing, physical disruption of the nerves and muscles, or pain
  • Dogs with dysphagia may present obviously struggling to swallow and drop food out of their mouths, other dogs manage to swallow then retch immediately
  • Dogs with chronic dysphagia may experience significant weight loss
  • Investigation involves physical examination, blood work, muscle biopsies, and a range of diagnostic imaging including X-rays, contrast fluoroscopy, endoscopy, and electromyography
  • Treatment depends on the underlying condition but normally involves assisted feeding alongside medical or surgical treatment of the underlying disease
  • Prognosis varies significantly depending on cause and response to treatment
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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.

Possible causes

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.

Risk factors

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
  • Electromyography
  • X-rays
  • CT scan
  • Contrast fluoroscopy
  • Endoscopy

Treatment options vary significantly depending on the underlying disease but include:

Symptomatic management:

  • 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

Similar symptoms

Dysphagia can be mistaken for other symptoms which interfere with the eating process.

Associated symptoms


Stanley L. Marks, BVSc, PhD, DACVIM (Internal Medicine, Oncology), DACVN - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Anjop J. Venker-van Haagen, DVM, PhD, ECVS - Writing for Veterinary Partner
Ed Hall MA VetMB PhD DipECVIM-CA FRCVS; James Simpson SDA BVM&S MPhil FHEA MRCVS - Writing for Vetlexicon
James Simpson SDA BVM&S MPhil FHEA MRCVS; Kenneth Simpson DVM BVM&S PhD DipACVIM DipECVIM - Writing for Vetlexicon
PetMD Editorial - Writing for PetMD

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