Canine Megaesophagus: Our Journey with Willow

It was love at first sight as we gathered to adopt the small black Labrador cross who would become known as “Willow”.  She was 3-months-old and growing up to be a gentle beautiful girl, but we suddenly found her not able to keep down food or water.  She was about a year old when her life changed. Willow would be fine as long as she was upright, but whenever she would lie down, or put her head down,she would throw up large amounts of food and or water. We were shocked and worried – what was wrong??

At our vet visit our doctor explained that Willow had a condition caused Megaesophagus and she would probably die from it at a young age even if it was managed properly. We came away shocked and in disbelief but knew that we were going to do whatever it took to make her life as good as we could.

The vet explained to us that Megaesophagus is a condition most often seen in either very young puppies (evident once they are moved to solid foods) or in older dogs as a secondary condition of another ailment. Again Willow was around a year old. In young puppies it is thought to be genetic, and has been proven to be so in several breeds. Megaesophagus is difficult to detect and diagnose, and the medical options are few. Food and water travel into the esophagus, but the muscles of the esophagus fail and it cannot propel food or water into the stomach. (It’s like a balloon that has been inflated several times and then hangs limp.) The food will sit there, and eventually the dog will tip her head down and out comes the food.  The esophagus becomes enlarged and stretched even further which compounds the problem. The result is that ingested food sits in the esophagus within the chest cavity and never makes it to the stomach. The most serious complication is that digestive fluid and food will at some point pool in the esophagus where it can be aspirated into the lungs causing pneumonia (Aspiration Pneumonia). Dogs with Megaesophagus often die from this.

We realized that Willow had many of the symptoms of Megaesophagus. She would often regurgitate her water and/or food. Willow would be fine running and playing but if she stopped suddenly the water and food would just rush out of her mouth. (Regurgitation is throwing up without any warning; “vomiting” is associated with retching.)  She would occasionally have swallowing difficulty, or frequent swallowing.  She would also try to clear her throat frequently with a “hacking” sound. If Willow would lie down to rest or sleep with her head on the floor she would often throw up.

The sad part was that she thought she had done something wrong and looked up at us with such an “I’m sorry” expression. That did not stop us from coming up with ways to try make her condition manageable.  We discovered that if we stood her up after each and every meal for a few minutes that this would help the food to go down into the stomach. We would shake it down for a few minutes while Willow stood on her hind legs patiently going through what she knew had to happen. There is also a device called a “Bailey Chair” which aids in the dropping of the food into the stomach while the animal sits upright. It was the same when she drank water. We would all take turns over the years, 5 of us, doing this for our most precious Willow. We also found it helped if she slept with pillows under her head.  All this worked a lot of the time but many times we would use our dust pan and squeegee to pick up her throw up.  It became just an everyday part of life that we did this.

Our veterinarian was always shocked at how well Willow would be doing, as we experimented with the food meatballs, milkshake consistency and various brands of canine dog food to find the one that would not trigger her into massive regurgitation fests. We fed her smaller meals several times a day, and placed her food dish up higher so her head was elevated. Willow could easily have died many times from starvation, and our job was to find what worked for her. What would work for a few months with food could suddenly need to be changed. I think that was the most frustrating part of the condition. Each dog is different and experimentation with food consistency is required. There was no rhyme or reason to managing this condition, only a lot of trial and error. However, at no time did we want to give up the fight to help her live. Often we would go for weeks without an episode and then bam it would change and we would think that she might starve to death. We knew it was a balance of the right food and our loving diligence to make sure we sat her upright every time she ate, drank or lay down that would help to keep her alive. We were very careful about the treats and food that would fall on the floor that she could not have. Thankfully, and I do not say this lightly, there were only a few times over her 12 years with this condition that we nearly lost her, but she fought back would put on weight and lived a full life.

She acted like a dog throughout all those years and never disappointed us with her silly antics and love for all things squeaky. We bought her a dog bed that had a high edge around it so she could sleep with her head elevated, and over the years Willow learned to always sit with her head up on something.  We have fond memories of her camping with her head on pillows, and air mattresses.  She loved to swim and go for long walks with us and her sister Lacey that we adopted to keep her company. Willow lived a long and very full life with this condition. Would I do this again, yes, but I know that we worked at managing this disease and that at the same time it could have killed her. Starvation and pneumonia are very strong possibilities when a dog has this disease. We also chose carefully the surgeries that she would have because of the complications Megaesophagus can cause while the pet is under sedation.

We were blessed to have had Willow for 12 years. She outlived her sister and did not die from Megaesophagus. That is amazing!! Would we have traded those years with her for a different dog… not on your life!!  We miss her every day, and think of her each time we now drop food on the floor and our new furry family members gobble it up!!