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Swallowing Difficulties in Dogs

Dysphagia in Dogs

Dysphagia in dogs refers to difficulty swallowing and can manifest in different anatomical regions: oral dysphagia within the mouth, pharyngeal dysphagia in the pharynx, or cricopharyngeal dysphagia at the juncture of the pharynx and the esophagus.


Oral dysphagia in dogs can stem from jaw paralysis, tongue paralysis, dental issues, muscle wasting, or an inability to open the mouth. Dogs with oral dysphagia may exhibit altered eating behaviors, such as tilting their head or throwing it backward while eating. Food retention in cheek folds without saliva is common.

Pharyngeal dysphagia occurs when a dog can grasp food but struggles to swallow, often flexing and extending the head and neck excessively, chewing excessively, and gagging. Food may be retained in cheek folds with saliva. There’s a reduced gag reflex, and nasal discharge may be present.

In cricopharyngeal dysphagia, dogs may eventually swallow after multiple attempts but may subsequently gag, cough, and regurgitate their food forcefully. Unlike pharyngeal dysphagia, the gag reflex remains intact. Dogs with cricopharyngeal dysphagia often appear underweight.


Anatomic/mechanical causes:

  • Pharyngeal inflammation due to conditions such as abscesses or inflammatory growths.
  • Tissue inflammation in the mouth involving white cells and modified macrophages.
  • Enlargement of lymph nodes behind the pharynx.
  • Cancerous growths.
  • Presence of foreign bodies.
  • Saliva accumulation leading to draining issues.
  • Disorders of the jaw joint resulting from fractures or luxations.
  • Fractures of the lower jaw.
  • Cleft palate, a structural abnormality in the roof of the mouth.
  • Lingual frenulum disorder, affecting the small fold of tissue on the tongue.
  • Trauma or injury to the mouth.

Dysphagia caused by pain:

  • Dental issues such as tooth fractures or abscesses.
  • Trauma to the mandible.
  • Mouth inflammation.
  • Tongue inflammation.
  • Pharyngeal inflammation.

Neuromuscular causes:

  • Deficits in cranial nerves.
  • Damage to the trigeminal nerve responsible for stimulating chewing muscles.
  • Paralysis of the tongue due to damage to the seventh nerve controlling facial muscles.
  • Inflammation affecting chewing muscles.

Pharyngeal weakness or paralysis causes:

  • Infectious polymyositis (e.g., Toxoplasmosis, Neosporosis).
  • Immune-mediated polymyositis, a hereditary muscle inflammation linked to immune disorders.
  • Muscular dystrophy.
  • Polyneuropathies involving multiple nerve problems.
  • Disorders of the myoneural junction where nerves fail to signal muscles properly, such as Myasthenia gravis, tick paralysis, and botulism.

Neurological causes:

  • Rabies.
  • Other brain disorders.


To diagnose your dog’s condition, your veterinarian will gather a detailed history of your pet’s health, noting the onset of symptoms and any relevant incidents like recent illnesses or injuries. Standard tests including a chemical blood profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis will be ordered to detect potential infectious diseases, kidney issues, or muscular injuries. It’s crucial during the physical examination for your veterinarian to differentiate between vomiting and dysphagia; vomiting involves abdominal contractions whereas dysphagia does not.

Laboratory tests for inflammatory disorders affecting chewing muscles, such as masticatory muscle myositis, as well as for conditions like myasthenia gravis, immune-mediated diseases, hyperadrenocorticism, and hypothyroidism, may also be conducted using blood samples.

X-ray and ultrasound imaging of your dog’s skull and neck will be performed to identify any abnormalities. An ultrasound of the pharynx can help visualize masses and obtain tissue samples if necessary. If a brain tumor is suspected, a computed tomography (CT) scan and/or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) will be employed to locate the tumor and assess its severity.


Treatment approaches will vary based on the underlying cause of the dysphagia. For cases where the issue stems from a mouth abnormality (oral dysphagia), feeding your dog may involve placing a food ball at the back of its throat and assisting with swallowing. Patients with pharyngeal or cricopharyngeal dysphagia may benefit from elevation of the head and neck during swallowing. In instances where your dog struggles to maintain a healthy body weight, your veterinarian might consider inserting a stomach tube. Surgical intervention may be necessary to remove masses or foreign bodies if they are causing dysphagia due to ingestion.

Living and Management

It’s crucial to maintain your dog’s optimal body weight throughout its treatment period. If your dog isn’t fitted with a stomach tube and you’re hand-feeding, ensure it receives multiple small meals daily while sitting upright. After each meal, support your dog in an upright position for 10 to 15 minutes to prevent aspiration pneumonia, a condition where food is inhaled into the lungs.

Watch out for symptoms of aspiration pneumonia including depression, fever, nasal discharge resembling pus, coughing, and breathing difficulties. If your dog displays any of these signs, contact your veterinarian immediately or take your dog to an emergency veterinary clinic for prompt treatment.

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