Achalasia is defined as the inability of a circular muscle, such as the esophageal muscle, to properly relax, resulting in the widening of the area around the musculature. In canines, achalasia symptoms include reduced body weight caused by difficulty swallowing and regurgitation during food consumption As a result, dogs with this condition have an inability to maintain proper nutrition. The condition is rare, but treatment is available.
An Anatomical Rarity
Believed to be congenital, although occasionally seen in older dogs, achalasia is an anatomical rarity. The improper behavior of the esophageal sphincter causes gagging, vomiting and aspiration as food struggles to move into the proximal esophagus in order to journey into the stomach. Swallowing, the natural act of moving food from the mouth into the stomach, is significantly impaired. Under normal conditions, the piece of food, or bolus, is formed at the base of the tongue. Pharyngeal muscle contractions propel the bolus into the throat, but in cases of achalasia, normal movement of food is impaired beyond this point. The inability of the cricopharyngeal muscle to relax causes food to lodge in the pharynx, as the final phase of swallowing is not completed.
Although diagnostics should always be left in the hands of a capable veterinarian, the symptoms of achalasia are difficult to miss. As the food becomes lodged in the dog's throat, gagging and coughing occurs. Repeated attempts at swallowing may eventually move some particles into the stomach, but a dog with achalasia is often referred to as a ravenous dog who is unable to eat. Liquids may be more easily tolerated than solid food, but the prolonged inability to consume solid food will cause a nutrition deficit, and continued aspiration may cause eventual pneumonia.
Observation is key in diagnosing achalasia. Behavior during eating is keenly observed by a veterinarian, and although the diagnosis of achalasia is not given lightly, a dog who can form food and pass it into the throat, but is unable to swallow, may be given the diagnosis of achalasia. Further examination with barium or dye, along with an endoscopic procedure is utilized to confirm the diagnosis.
Back to Basics
Returning the suffering canine to a life of basic nutrition is typically accomplished through surgery. All fibers of the cricopharyngeus muscle are transected in order the ensure the esophagus will no longer constrict during swallowing. Care is taken to avoid perforation of the esophagus, and the larynx is rotated before and after the transection to protect it during the procedure. Post-operative care consists of administering small amounts of soft food and the monitoring of swallowing. Surgical success is seen in nearly two-thirds of canine patients.