Esophagitis in Dogs: What Is It & How To Tackle It

By Chelsea Hunt-Rivera / April 23, 2018
esophagitis in dogs

What is Esophagitis in Dogs

dog with esophagitis

Esophagitis in dogs is inflammation of the lining of your dog’s esophagus. The esophagus is a muscular tube lined with a mucous membrane that delivers food from the throat to the stomach.

The inflammation can lead to serious damage to the esophagus. It is often very uncomfortable and leads to difficulty swallowing as well as severe chest pain.

Categorized as an esophageal disorder, esophagitis may be more common than you think. However, the clinical signs of esophagitis are often subtle and easily misunderstood.

Additionally, esophagitis may be a secondary complication emerging from a gastrointestinal disorder. In general, when inflammation like esophagitis is present, it’s a tell-tale sign that there are additional issues in the gastrointestinal tract.

Esophagitis Symptoms

esophagitis symptoms

Perhaps the most common symptom of esophagitis in dogs is a struggle to consume their food or water. You may find your dog regurgitating their food or exhibit signs of trouble and pain when trying to swallow.

Additional symptoms of esophagitis include:

  • Pain (chest pain and throat pain as well as an overall discomfort the body)
  • Excessive salivation
  • Vomiting
  • Anorexia (loss of appetite)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Increased swallowing movements (I.e. your dog may extend its head and neck during
  • swallowing)
  • Excessive or persistent gulping
  • Increased secretions coming out of the mouth
  • Coughing
  • Weight loss
  • Poor posture and movement
  • Reluctance to move or lie down
  • Excessive acid reflux or regurgitation
  • Fever

If you find any of these symptoms of esophagitis in your dog and they seem persistent, a visit to your veterinarian is definitely in order.

Causes of Esophagitis in Dogs

causes of esophagitis in dogs

In contrast to many disorders, esophagitis does not have age, breed or sex predilection. Thus, making one dog as susceptible to the condition as the next.

There a number of causes of esophagitis including:

  • Chronic vomiting
  • Accidentally ingesting chemical or acidic irritants
  • A hiatal hernia
  • Esophageal neoplasia (cancer)
  • A foreign body in the esophagus
  • Acid reflux or backward flow of gastric or intestinal juice
  • Retaining ingested pills or capsules in the esophagus
  • Manipulation of the esophageal tissues when undergoing anesthesia
  • Infections

Types of Esophagitis in Dogs

Veterinarians have different ways to characterize esophagitis in your pup based on the symptoms present and underlying cause of the esophagitis.

Additionally, there are several disorders of the esophagus that cause inflammation and can lead to esophagitis.

These additional disorders include:

  • Acid reflux
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Congenital lower esophagus sphincter abnormality
  • Strictures Megaesophagus (dilation of the esophagus)
  • Esophageal diverticula (expansion of the esophageal wall which can lead to dysphagia and regurgitation)
  • Esophageal foreign bodies (commonly caused by treats such as rawhides)
  • Infections (aspiration pneumonia)
  • Parasitic infections (including protozoa, ringworm, and tapeworm)
  • Viral infections (such as rotavirus, parvovirus, coronavirus)
  • Bacterial infections: (including salmonella and e.coli)
  • Various medications (antibiotics, certain anti-inflammatory drugs)
  • Tumors
  • Isolated UES dysfunction (i.e., cricopharyngeal achalasia which is a swallowing disorder)
  • Stomach ulcers

Reflux Esophagitis in Dogs

Perhaps the most common symptom of all esophageal diseases is the regurgitation or reflux of digestive fluids. These digestive fluids include stomach acid, pepsin, and bile.

Reflux esophagitis is defined as inflammation of the esophagus from the reflux of gastric contents. The gastric contents regurgitate from the stomach back into the dog’s throat by means of the esophagus, thus causing the inflammation.

Reflux esophagitis is also referred to as gastroesophageal reflux disease (aka GERD).

While sharing many similarities including symptoms, causes, and ways to diagnose, reflux esophagitis differs from a general esophageal disorder in that there is only one type. Reflux esophagitis solely develops from the acid reflux or regurgitation of gastric stomach contents causing inflammation to the esophagus.

Regurgitation vs Vomiting

Regurgitation is often mistaken for vomiting. While they do have commonalities, they are symptoms of varying conditions. Regurgitation is a tell-tale sign of an esophageal disease whereas vomiting is a clinical sign of gastrointestinal disease.

When determining whether your dog is regurgitating or vomiting, it simply comes down to whether or not the action is voluntary.

A regurgitation is a voluntary act whereas vomiting is not voluntary. Also, nausea and an upset stomach commonly proceed vomiting whereas regurgitation does not have any warning ahead of time.

Vomiting also has physical symptoms such as visible stomach contractions whereas regurgitation does not.

Knowing the difference between regurgitation and vomiting can help lead pet owners to a proper diagnosis of what is going on with their sick pup.

Causes of Reflux Esophagitis in Dogs

As you will see, the causes of reflux esophagitis closely resemble the causes found in gastrointestinal diseases. This is again why knowing the differences between regurgitation and vomiting is so important in reaching an accurate diagnosis.

The causes of reflux esophagitis include:

  • Hiatal hernia*
  • Alterations of the esophageal tissues for undergoing anesthesia
  • Persistent vomiting
  • The presence of foreign body caught in the esophagus
  • Food allergies
  • Cancer of the esophagus

*We should probably give a bit more information about hiatal hernias seeing as we have mentioned them before.

Hiatal Hernia

When one part of the body or part of an organ protrudes through an opening into another part of the body, it is known as a hernia.

A hiatal hernia is an abnormality of the diaphragm. The abnormality allows a part of the stomach to enter into the chest cavity.

The symptoms that are most commonly linked to hiatal hernias are:

  • Vomiting
  • Regurgitation
  • Excessive salivation
  • Bloody vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing

Eosinophilic Esophagitis in Dogs

Eosinophilic esophagitis has only been discovered in dogs in the past 8 years. It occurs when the mucous lining of the throat has an excess amount of a white blood cell known as eosinophils.

Researchers believe that eosinophilic esophagitis is most commonly develops from a food allergy. The symptoms of eosinophilic esophagitis are comparable to the other types of esophagitis.

Veterinarians diagnose the condition with a biopsy of the throat lining, although it is quite rare that the diagnosis they reach is that of eosinophilic esophagitis.

Diagnosing Esophagitis in Dogs – Why the Disorder is Often Misconstrued

dog x rays

Diagnosing esophagitis can be quite problematic for veterinarians as well as difficult for the pet owner to pick up on.

First off, the clinical signs of esophagitis can vary greatly depending on the severity of the disorder. Some symptoms may be very subtle and can go unnoticed weeks or months. Other clinical signs may be extremely severe and develop quickly.

Pet owners should give their veterinarian as much information as possible regarding their dog’s medical history.

From there, a series of tests will be performed.

In most cases, the veterinarian will administer the following routine tests:

  • Complete physical examination
  • Complete blood count (CBC) – Allows a veterinarian see if there is an elevation in the white blood cell count due to severe inflammation or a secondary infection.
  • Biochemical profile – Rules out other systemic disorders, such as kidney disease or liver disease, that can lead to inflammation and cause esophagitis.
  • Urinalysis

These tests usually come back normal in most patients. Therefore, the following testing is necessary in order to reach an accurate diagnosis:

  • Chest X-rays – Allows the veterinarian to see the size and shape of the esophagus and whether there is a foreign body present. It also allows the veterinarian to assess whether there is potential for secondary aspiration pneumonia to form.
  • Barium Contrast Radiography – An advanced form of radiography that reveals changes in the esophagus and esophageal lining due to inflammation.
  • Esophagoscopy – Allows for a visual inspection of the esophagus and is the most reliable procedure for an accurate diagnosis of esophagitis.

Esophagitis Treatment

Treating esophagitis will vary based on the underlying cause of the condition. Like the vast majority of disorders, the primary objective is to determine what factors lead the dog to get to this point in order to ensure that the condition doesn’t get worse.

If left untreated, esophagitis can lead to a severe form of pneumonia. Determining the cause of the esophagitis and treating it appropriately can prevent a secondary infection, such as pneumonia, from occurring.

Veterinarians can assist with an appropriate treatment plan once they diagnose the cause of the esophageal inflammation.

Pet owners will want to prevent the esophagus from any additional exposure of gastric acids and protect the esophageal lining and well as manage any pain or discomfort that the condition is causing. Your veterinarian will prescribe the appropriate medications in order to achieve these goals.

Additionally, throughout treatment as well as once the esophagus has healed, adequate nutritional support and lifestyle alterations may be necessary.

Esophagitis Diet Modifications

It is incredibly important to manage your dog’s diet when treating inflammation of the esophagus.

Based on the severity of esophagitis, food and water will need to be closely monitored and at times restricted so that the esophagus can heal properly.

Specialists recommend a low fat, low protein diet that is rich in carbohydrates. The food should be given in small increments, several times a day, to avoid regurgitation and irritation at all costs.

Many dogs who have esophageal GERD also have underlying food sensitivities. Therefore, it is also recommended to avoid food with allergens, including soy, rice, and gluten. When possible, eliminating preservatives, additives, and emulsifiers can also significantly benefit your dog.

Esophagitis Due to Gastrointestinal Reflux

If the esophagitis is due to gastrointestinal acid reflux, your veterinarian will treat the cause and symptoms with the appropriate medications. This will also ensure that they esophageal lining doesn’t narrow in response to the trauma.

Medications may include gastric acid inhibitors (antacids) and proton pump inhibitors such as omeprazole in order to reduce the overall amount of stomach acid production.

Esophagitis Due to Foreign Body

In cases where a foreign body in the esophagus caused esophagitis, endoscopic removal may be inevitable.

If the endoscopy was unsuccessful, surgical removal of the foreign body will be necessary.

Additionally, often the culprit of the foreign body is a treat, such as the ever popular rawhides. Sadly, these will no longer be allowed to satisfy your beloved pup in order to prevent further esophageal problems from occurring.

Managing Esophagitis in Dogs

managing esophagitis in dogs

There are many things that pet owners can do in order to treat symptoms, manage esophagitis, and ensure that it doesn’t progress to a potentially life-threatening state.

As always, it is paramount that pet owners know as much about their dog as possible. Being aware of what’s “normal” also means that you are aware when something is “off.” Knowing when it’s time to take your dog to the veterinarian can make a world of a difference in your fur baby’s life.


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About the author

Chelsea Hunt-Rivera

Chelsea Rivera is a Dedicated Pet Parent who loves to create amazing content for pet owners and is helping change pet wellness as the Head of Content for