Tracheoesophageal fistulas occur when there is an opening between the trachea, or windpipe, and the esophagus. This allows air to enter the gastrointestinal tract and food or mucus to enter the respiratory system. While this condition, along with bronchoesophageal fistulas, can be the result of a congenital defect, both are rare in dogs. Fistula development is typically acquired when a dog eats something he shouldn’t.
While fistulas are rare in dogs, the two more common types are bronchoesophegal and tracheoesophageal fistulas. While a tracheoesophageal fistula creates an opening between the windpipe and the esophagus, the bronchoesophageal fistula creates an opening between the esophagus and the bronchi, or the airway passages to the lungs. Both conditions result in similar symptoms, treatments and complications.
Canine fistulas typically occur when a dog ingests a foreign body that has sharp edges, such as a bone or a piece of hard plastic. When this object enters the esophagus, the sharp edges can penetrate the tissue, causing a tear and opening between the esophagus and respiratory tract. In very rare cases, fistulas occur as the result of abnormal growth during development. This congenital abnormality has been seen in cairn terriers.
When a fistula develops, common symptoms include coughing after eating or drinking, fever, vomiting, anorexia, lethargy and gagging. In severe cases, the introduction of fluid or food into the airway can lead to the development of pneumonia, a common secondary condition developing because of the fistulas.
If you suspect your dog has a tracheoesophageal or bronchoesophageal fistula, consult your veterinarian immediately, as the condition can be life threatening. Diagnosis typically involves radiography, esophagoscopy or bronchoscopy with a contrast medium. Treating a fistula requires surgical intervention to close the opening between the esophagus and trachea or bronchi. If caught early, the prognosis is good. If secondary conditions, such as pneumonia, develop, the prognosis is guarded. Typically, antibiotics are prescribed following surgery to reduce the risk of secondary infections.
While fistulas are not common, there are things you can do to reduce the risk of them occurring. Always monitor your dog when he has a bone or a new toy. If you notice sharp edges, take the toy away. Keep garbage out of his reach so he isn’t tempted to gobble up something that could cause a tear.
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