Last Updated on January 30, 2023 by Becky Roberts
Doctors call it “gastroesophageal reflux disease” or GERD, for short. We know it better as “acid reflux.” If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to experience it yourself, you know how nasty acid reflux can be — that burning, choking sensation in your throat and pain in the chest.
But if it can happen to us, can it happen to our pets as well? Can dogs get acid reflux, too? And if so, how can that happen?
- 1 What is canine acid reflux?
- 2 The symptoms of acid reflux in dogs
- 3 What acid reflux doesn’t look like
- 4 How diagnosis is done
- 5 What causes acid reflux in dogs
- 6 Treatment and management
- 7 The final word: prevention
What is canine acid reflux?
Yes, GERD or acid reflux does happen among dogs. It’s a fairly common occurrence and it can happen at any age. But it seems young dogs are at the highest risk of developing it.
For both dogs and humans, acid reflux is a medical condition where gastric and intestinal fluids tend to abnormally “reverse flow” or back up through the esophagus, the tract which connects the stomach to the throat. Those strong stomach acids can cause damage to the inner lining of the esophagus. These also trigger vomiting and significant chest pains.
Acid reflux in dogs, however, have a few more complications. Sometimes the regurgitation of fluids is so frequent that the vomit can enter a dog’s breathing passages. That can eventually lead to inflammation and infection in the trachea and lungs (i.e., pneumonia).
The symptoms of acid reflux in dogs
Most of that occurs inside the body. Unfortunately, dogs can’t talk and tell you what they’re feeling inside. You’ll only know if your pet has been stricken with acid reflux if he starts showing the following symptoms:
- Chronic vomiting or gagging after meals
- Coughing or dry retching
- Nearly constant burping and gurgling in the throat
- Wheezing sounds while breathing
- Extremely foul or bad breath
- Whining (or even howling) from pain
- Lack of appetite for food
- Weight loss
- Excessive drooling or salivating
Any one of these symptoms is a cause for concern. So if you see your dog display two or more of these symptoms, don’t prolong your pet’s discomfort — bring him to your veterinarian ASAP.
What acid reflux doesn’t look like
At first glance, the symptoms of acid reflux in dogs may also resemble plain indigestion. Here are a few symptoms that are not associated with acid reflux, which could indicate your dog is just suffering from indigestion or stomach upset:
- Visible stomach bloat
- Flatulence or frequent farting
- Eating herbs or grass
If you’re unsure about what your dog is suffering from, just bring him to the vet to be properly diagnosed.
How diagnosis is done
Your vet will likely perform an esophagoscopy. This is a physical exam of your dog’s esophagus, the tract that runs down your dog’s throat to the stomach. A probe with a tiny camera is inserted through your dog’s mouth. This is how the vet confirms if the internal mucus lining of the esophagus has signs of bleeding, ulcers, or esophagitis (inflammation), which are “red flag” indicators of acid reflux.
Note: The esophagoscopy is a necessary procedure. Some of the symptoms your dog is suffering may be indicative of other problems, and this method can help your vet rule out other causes, like:
- Hiatal hernia – an abnormal protrusion of tissue in the upper stomach
- Megaesophagus – a muscular disorder around the esophagus, making it difficult to push digested matter towards the stomach
- Accidental ingestion of a corrosive substance or foreign body
- Tumors or other gastrointestinal diseases
What causes acid reflux in dogs
So what triggers this disorder in dogs?
It all hinges on the esophageal sphincters. These two muscular rings are found at the top and bottom of the esophagus. These help keep swallowed food go down the right path and into the stomach.
The lower esophageal sphincter (or cardioesophageal sphincter) is particularly important. Located at the junction where the stomach and the esophagus meet, it’s what stops stomach liquids from backing up into the esophagus itself. Once that sphincter malfunctions, however, it sends the volatile liquids spilling and bubbling up the tract — becoming the dreaded gastroesophageal reflux.
And what can cause this sphincter to fail?
1. Overeating and obesity
When a dog is often allowed to eat huge meals (with more fat than what his size and age allow) and become obese, his stomach can’t digest and empty itself at the right pace. That puts too much stress on the lower esophageal sphincter. Eventually, the muscular ring loses strength. (Thus, triggering canine acid reflux.)
2. Surgery and anesthesia
The dog’s lower esophageal sphincter can relax when an anesthetic is applied for surgery — leaving an open channel between the esophagus and stomach. (This is why vets tell you to not feed your dog hours before surgery.) If the dog isn’t positioned properly while he is anesthetized, it could trigger acid reflux. And once the stomach acid does some damage to the esophagus, it can leave the dog more prone to future acid reflux episodes.
3. Congenital defects
Some dogs are born with certain physical defects or conditions that make them more prone to developing gastroesophageal reflux. One example (as previously mentioned) is a hiatal hernia.
Treatment and management
If your vet confirms that your dog has acid reflux, there are ways to either manage or cure the condition.
The vet will prescribe some drugs for your dog to take. These medicines have gastrointestinal “pro-kinetic” ingredients that improve your dog’s peristaltic movement and strengthen his gastroesophageal sphincters.
If your dog’s condition was caused by a congenital disorder like a hernia, or if the acid reflux has led to the development of an ulcer inside his esophagus, then your vet may recommend surgery. Don’t worry, the surgeries in these cases are usually done via endoscopy and aren’t extremely invasive.
3. Fasting and modified diet
You’ll have to make your dog fast for one or two days (taking no food and drinking only liquids), to help reduce the contents and activity in the stomach and intestines.
After that, put your dog on a low-protein, low-fat diet, to keep the secretion of gastric acid in his stomach low. Give his meals as smaller, more frequent feedings.
If you’ve been feeding your pet dry dog food, you may have to switch to either hydrated or homemade fresh food. A good example would be a dish made with steamed broccoli and boiled chicken breast fillet. (To avoid adding extra fat, don’t cook anything for your dog in oils.)
Some pet owners will do the occasional “fruit-and-vegetable fast” for their dogs. They designate certain days of the week when their dog eats only low-fat vegetables and fruits and alternating them with days when the dog can eat lean meat. This could be a useful dieting method for your dog, too.
- Make sure to consult with your vet when designing a diet for your dog.
- Once your dog has successfully undergone treatment for his acid reflux, make sure to keep a daily health journal of your dog’s symptoms.
- Continue to monitor him for any possible “flare-ups” of the reflux, and consult your vet again if these occur.
The final word: prevention
You can keep your dog’s risk of developing acid reflux low, by maintaining his gastrointestinal health and normal metabolism. Give him a healthy diet with just the appropriate amount of calories, fats, and nutrients — no more, no less.
Resist the urge to give him lots of sweet treats and rich leftovers from your meals. Give your dog enough exercise so that he doesn’t get obese, and keeps his cardiovascular and muscular strength.
So don’t worry! While acid reflux is relatively common among dogs, you have the means to cure your dog’s suffering or spare him from it.