What Is Esophageal Obstruction or Esophagus Blockage in Dogs?
The esophagus is a long, narrow, muscular tube that connects the mouth and the stomach, and is the passage through which food travels. Problems can occur when pets eat things they shouldn’t. Anything a dog swallows can become stuck in the esophagus, but typically items that get stuck are rough, irregularly shaped objects or things too large to pass through.
If you suspect your dog has something stuck in the throat, he should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately, especially if he appears short of breath, weak, has blue-gray gums, or is struggling to breath or breathing rapidly.
If an object lodges in the esophagus, at first a dog may appear to be in distress and uncomfortable but still breathe normally. This is because the esophagus is not involved in breathing. However, an object lodged in the back of the mouth or upper part of the esophagus can put pressure on the windpipe (trachea) and soon cause problems in breathing.
In addition, esophageal obstructions can lead to many complications if not treated promptly. Left untreated, objects may create holes in the esophagus, which in some instances can allow air or fluid to build up around the lungs and lead to breathing issues.
Full or Partial Esophageal Obstruction
When an obstruction occurs, it can be full or partial.
A full obstruction occurs when food or water cannot pass around the object to reach the stomach. Signs and symptoms are more obvious when the esophagus is completely blocked, as compared to a partial obstruction.
A partial obstruction occurs when a smaller object gets lodged in the esophagus, and some food and water is still able to pass the object and get to the stomach. Partial obstructions are still an emergency, and can sometimes be more difficult to recognize. That’s because symptoms may not be as obvious as they are in dogs with a full or complete esophageal obstruction.
Dogs with a full obstruction will spit up food or water, but this may not occur until several hours after they have ingested the object. Bones are the most common objects that become stuck in the esophagus. Other objects include nylabones, rawhide, dental chews, sharp objects such as fishing hooks or sewing needles, or even large pieces of food.
Symptoms of Esophageal Obstruction
Symptoms of obstruction include:
Gulping or repeated attempts to swallow
Gagging, retching, coughing
Repeated attempts to vomit without being able to bring anything up
Decreased interest in eating and/or drinking
Smacking/licking the lips
Drooling (there may or may not be blood in the drool)
Pawing at the mouth or face
Vomiting or regurgitation (may be delayed several hours after eating)
Pain with movement, especially when moving the head and neck
How Veterinarians Diagnose Esophageal Obstruction
Diagnosing this condition usually involves taking x-rays of the entire chest/neck to look for the object in the throat. Some objects show up well on x-rays, while others can be more difficult to see. If your veterinarian suspects an object is stuck in the esophagus but cannot see it on x-ray, they may:
Recommend using contrast dye and retake x-rays
Snaking an endoscope down the esophagus
Perform a CT scan of the neck/chest to evaluate the esophagus
These tests will be used to determine the object’s location and whether there is damage to the esophageal tissue near the object. It also allows them to determine if there are any defects in the esophagus that may allow air, fluid, and/or infection to build up in local tissues or to leak into the space around the lungs. Your veterinarian may also recommend additional diagnostics like bloodwork to evaluate the health of your dog.
Treatment of Esophageal Obstruction
Treating esophageal obstructions in dogs depends on the type of object, its location, and how long the object has been stuck. Regardless of the method, general anesthesia is required.
For most esophageal obstructions, veterinarians prefer endoscopy. This uses a long, narrow tube equipped with a camera at the tip, as well as tools to maneuver a foreign object. It is especially useful for things like fish hooks or other sharp objects that often catch in soft tissues. The camera can help the vet assess damage to plan further treatment.
A vet may try a procedure called blind retrieval, in which long forceps grab the object to remove it through the mouth. If this is not possible, the vet may try to gently push the object through the esophagus to the stomach. Once in the stomach, the object may pass on its own and eventually end up in the pet’s stool.
If there are concerns the object may not pass through the digestive tract on its own, or should not be allowed to pass on its own, surgery may be performed to remove the object from the stomach (gastrotomy). This type of surgery tends to be easier than surgery on the esophagus. Esophagostomy may be recommended if the object cannot be pushed to the stomach or if there are concerns about significant damage to the esophagus. Esophagostomy is a surgery that involves approaching the object through the neck and cutting into the esophagus to remove the object.
Even with the object’s removal, the esophagus may need time and treatment to heal. Damage can lead to inflammation (esophagitis). The longer an object is left stuck in the esophagus, the higher the chances of esophagitis developing. In mild cases, a dog may be treated with antacids, gastrointestinal protectants, and pain medication for a few weeks, along with a softened diet.
In more severe cases, scar tissue can form, resulting in a stricture, or narrowing of the esophagus. If a stricture forms, a dog may experience future issues with difficulty swallowing and it may lead to a condition called megaesophagus.
In cases where there are concerns about more severe damage, to prevent complications, a dog may be started on additional medications to reduce the production of stomach acid and enhance gastrointestinal protection. Pain medications and antibiotics may be prescribed. In some cases, a feeding tube may be used for two to three weeks.
How Much Does It Cost to Remove a Foreign Object From a Dog's Esophagus?
The cost to treat an esophageal foreign body varies greatly based on your location in the country, the object that is stuck, how long the object has been stuck, and the method used to retrieve it.
- For objects that have been stuck for a short period and can be retrieved using forceps/blind retrieval, cost can range between $500-$1,000.
For objects that have been stuck for a short period of time and are retrieved using endoscopy, cost can range between $750-$1,500.
For objects that have been stuck for a longer period of time, complicated cases, or cases that require surgery, cost can range between $1,500-$3,000.
Recovery and Management of Esophageal Obstruction
After the object’s removal, many dogs develop esophagitis, which is inflammation of the esophagus. This is managed by medications such omeprazole to reduce stomach acid production. Gastrointestinal protectants such as sucralfate may be prescribed to protect damaged esophageal tissue. Metoclopramide is also often prescribed to reduce the likelihood of stomach acid refluxing into the esophagus.
Other medications include pain medications, anti-nausea medications, appetite stimulants, and antibiotics. In addition, your veterinarian may recommend a canned, soft, or moistened diet for two to three weeks while the tissues heal, fed in smaller, more frequent meals.
If there is a lot of damage to the esophagus, a feeding tube may be placed for two to three weeks to give the esophagus time to heal. Your veterinarian will likely recommend a special liquid diet and will demonstrate proper feeding tube care if one is placed.
Most dogs make a full recovery. In some instances, a dog may develop a stricture (narrowing) within the esophagus that makes it difficult for food to pass through the esophagus. In these cases, long-term feeding and dietary modifications may be recommended to help manage complications like megaesophagus, in which the esophagus becomes enlarged and cannot move food easily.
Foreign Objects Stuck in the Throat in Dogs FAQs
How do you know if something is stuck in a dog's esophagus?
It can be difficult to tell if there is something stuck in your dog’s esophagus, but if you notice the following, take your dog to the vet immediately:
Suddenly acting agitated, anxious, or restless
Repeatedly swallowing, gagging, or coughing
Pawing at their mouth
Excessive drooling (which may contain blood)
Seeming uncomfortable when moving their head or neck around
How long can a foreign object stay in a dog?
The sooner an esophageal foreign body is treated, the better the chances for a quick and complete recovery. Dogs tend to do best if esophageal foreign bodies are removed within 24 hours.
How can I prevent my dog from getting something stuck in its throat?
Do not let your dog chew on bones, as they are the most common object to get stuck in the esophagus. It is also important to monitor how your dog does with treats designed to encourage chewing, such as dental treats or chews. If you notice your dog tends to break off large pieces of these treats and swallow them whole, it is best to avoid them. Also, monitor how they do with these types of treats when they get close to having them completely chewed. If they tend to try to swallow the last remaining piece, it is best to take it away.
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