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Deadly disease ‘not insurmountable’ for dogs

Dr. Jillian Haines pets Kona before the canine's swallow exam.
Dr. Jillian Haines loves on Kona before her swallow exam at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

An eating disorder that has for many years led to death or euthanasia of dogs within months of diagnosis, doesn’t have to be a death sentence – not for pets visiting Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“We’re learning to manage the disease, and we’re adding on, in many cases, years to the time these animals get to spend here with their owners,” WSU veterinarian Dr. Jillian Haines said.

The disease is known as megaesophagus. It involves an enlargement of the esophagus and a loss of the organ’s ability to move food to the stomach, which leaves the material bottling up, and, in some cases, never reaching the stomach. If left untreated, many animals regurgitate or aspirate food into their lungs, causing pneumonia and eventual death. Treatment relies on placing dogs in a begging position to allow gravity to move food from the mouth, through the non-functioning esophagus, and into the stomach.  Owners often struggle to determine what food to use and how long to keep their dogs upright, which can result in severe complications for the dogs.

Special imaging studies, like those provided by Haines at WSU, are changing that.

Haines, a respected veterinarian worldwide specializing in megaesophagus, is keeping dogs around using a video X-ray machine and a variety of food consistencies to determine the needs for each individual animal. 

By using the moving X-ray (videofluoroscopy), Haines can watch as food makes its way down the esophagus. The type of food, consistency, and the time it takes from eating a given amount of food before it finally makes its way into the stomach are all metrics Haines can provide owners to help prolong the life of their dog.

Kona waits for a swallow exam at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital
Kona waits patiently for her swallow exam at the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Dogs like Kona, an 18-month-old mixed-breed rescue, and others from all over the nation have ventured to Pullman for the exam and are a testament to Haines’ work.

“It’s not insurmountable,” said Robyn Smith, who adopted Kona back in February. “It’s definitely more time-consuming than just having a regular dog that you put the food down and call it good, but you can manage this disease.”

Before coming to WSU from Mount Spokane for a megaesophagus feeding evaluation this summer, Kona wasn’t on any medications, she regurgitated often, and she was sitting for up to 30 minutes after each meal in her Bailey Chair, a chair that holds animals upright to help improve the chance food enters their stomach.

Now, Kona is prescribed medication to help keep her esophagus healthy. In turn, she’s regurgitating less. She’s also spending half the time in her Bailey Chair since the study found after 15 minutes most food has made its way into Kona’s stomach.

Haines was able to determine which food consistency had the best chance to reach Kona’s stomach. The remedy was a mixture of kibble, a dry raw food dehydrated into powder form, and water.

 “We were able to figure out what medications would work best for her and also tailor a feeding plan to Kona that maximizes everyone’s quality of life.” Haines said.

Smith, who works in a Spokane emergency room, said even with a medical background, taking on a megaesophagus dog is still a challenge.

“When you leave town, you can’t just leave her with anyone,” Smith said.

Smith said another big takeaway from the study was the relationship she’s built with Haines, who still checks in on Kona on occasion.

“It’s a learning curve when you have a megaesophagus dog, so it’s nice to have someone who understands,” she said. “Fortunately, Kona is doing so much better.”

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