Living with a Dog with Megaesophagus

Bear is my second dog with megaesophagus

January 20, 2017 (published)
Bear is sitting in a Bailey chair for vertical feeding, to help get food to the stomach. Photo by Dr. Sherri Wilson.

My dog has a problem with his esophagus, the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Normally the workings of the esophagus are not even something that you and I or your dog have to think about, as muscle movement in the esophagus is one of those automatic things that is carefully coordinated when we eat or drink. That way, food and liquid go right down to the stomach in less than a few seconds.

But when the motility (muscle movement) in the esophagus is not working correctly, food and water don't make it easily down to the stomach. Instead, they sit in the esophagus, usually for minutes but sometimes it can be for many hours. When the dog changes position, such as just jumping off the couch, the food or liquid comes out.

How it comes out is interesting; well, it’s interesting when it’s not on your carpet! We call it regurgitation, which is different from vomiting. Regurgitation is passive, meaning that the material comes out because of a shift in position, which sends the food/liquid sitting in the esophagus out through the mouth, surprising everyone.

This differs from vomiting, which know is coming because the brain coordinates it: first there is nausea (drooling, hanging of the head, licking the lips), then the abdominal contractions and the retching sound, then the material comes up.

Most of the time, what you see your pets doing when they’re sick is vomiting; they retch first, then bring something up. Maybe one percent of the time what you’re actually seeing is regurgitating: it’s this passive ‘flying out of the mouth’ business with no retching first. It makes a big difference to what we think about where the problem is, so be sure to tell your veterinarian if you see regurgitation and not vomiting so we can focus on the esophagus.

Note that if you just find the puddle of vomit on the ground, you can’t tell how it was brought up. You have to see the dog vomit or regurgitate to know which is which, or you could hear the dog retching, and then you know that you’re hearing vomiting.

When the esophagus has completely lost its motility (its ability to contract its muscles), it widens or dilates with air. We can see this on x-rays, and it’s called megaesophagus.

This is my SECOND dog with megaesophagus. Say what? What did I do in a previous life that prompted this?

The first dog had an underlying disease that caused it, a disease called myasthenia gravis that developed when he was two years old. That is a rare disease where the immune system wipes out the junction between the neurologic system and the muscles.

If the neurologic message (the electrical message in the nerves) is a boat, it needs to dock at its receptor in the muscle to be able to send its message. But the immune system has destroyed a lot of the docks, so the boat circles around trying to find a dock to connect with. When it finds one, the message is given to the muscles, and they move. Myasthenia results in a lot fewer docks (receptors), so the muscles don’t contract well. Sometimes they just contract in the esophagus, sometimes in all the leg muscles as well.

To get the food down to a dog’s stomach, one option is to put a feeding tube in the stomach so we can squirt a liquified canned food directly in there.

Another option is called vertical feeding: taking advantage of gravity to try to move the food from the mouth down to their stomach. If you hold the dog up in a vertical position for 30 minutes after being fed, this helps get the food to the stomach and avoids over-stretching the esophagus.

When food or liquid sits in the esophagus, the dog loses a lot of weight because the esophagus can’t absorb the food to be used for nutrition. In addition, food or liquid sitting in the esophagus will be regurgitated throughout the day, which not only makes a mess in your house, but each time the dog regurgitates he could aspirate (e.g., the food or liquid could slide into their lungs, causing pneumonia).

If we can keep them going, myasthenia gravis will spontaneously stop within several months. That’s what happened with my little dog: after eight months of feeding him through a tube four times a day, he regained the motility in his esophagus. His immune system had stopped its destruction of the neuromuscular docks, and he hadn’t developed permanent over-stretching of his esophagus because he’d been fed through a stomach tube. He never had that disease again for the rest of his life, which was another 11 years.

It was a challenging time. No, that’s an understatement. Squirting a canned food through a small diameter tube tests your patience in ways you have no way of understanding until you do it. You find out what tiny fragments of ‘stuff’ are in canned food that you paid no attention to previously. Despite adding water and putting the food/water in the blender, these little fragments obstruct the syringe/tube and it explodes off the tube as you’re pushing it. About the 500th time that hits you in the face or hits the ceiling above you, you begin to question the choices that led you to this point in your life. So to say it was a MIRACLE when it went away is also an understatement.

Now five years later, we have another little dog with a megaesophagus. Really. My husband and I froze in horror when he regurgitated one day. Seriously, we’re not bad people: did we really deserve this? We’ve been down this road before and this time there was no underlying disease that could be found. This is likely to be his story for the rest of his life. Our shih tzu, Bear, is only seven years old, so we could be doing this for many years.

We first put in a stomach tube that worked well for the first six months, but then it broke and the replacement tube fell out repeatedly, and the tract from his stomach to the body wall sealed up for good; unfortunately that was that. We could have started again with putting in a new tube, but decided to try feeding him vertically in a Bailey chair.

Bailey was the name of a big dog who had developed megaesophagus as a puppy. His devoted owners developed a wooden stand for him to sit in to eat and then rest afterwards, allowing him to be fed vertically for 30 minutes without the owners needing to physically hold him up.



At the time, this challenged the prevailing advice in veterinary medicine, which was to give water and food from an elevated position (e.g. feeding the dog with the bowl on some steps). This elevated position is not NEARLY as effective in moving food/water from the mouth to the stomach as is a vertical position, like in the Bailey chair.

For years, Donna Koch (Bailey’s owner) and her husband have made available advice in measuring and assembling a Bailey chair for individual dogs, all for the price of shipping a DVD or VHS with the instructions. These plans are still available; check out the active Yahoo Megaesophagus Group that is co-moderated by a veterinarian; it is highly recommended. Having a dog with a megaesophagus can be stressful and there’s no need to go it alone. Also, there are now commercial web sites that will assemble a chair for your dog based on measurements you provide, which is what we did. Given the speed at which we were getting around to building one ourselves, it would have never happened, plus it would have splinters.

There are also many creative solutions for vertical feeding, depending on the size of the dog, e.g. putting the dog in a Exersaucer, a baby jumper, a baby backpack, a white construction bucket with towels stuffed around the dog, in a baby Bjorn front baby carrier, etc.

It took a few weeks for Bear to get used to the idea that he needed to stay in the Bailey chair. That required a combination of sitting next to him giving him meaningful looks, followed by quieting him if he was wriggling to get out. It helps to use the beach towel to make him feel more wedged into it.

For the most part we can now walk around in the kitchen while he’s in it, still giving occasional meaningful looks and praising him for being such a good boy to stay there. The other day, I actually forgot him in the Bailey chair and left the room to do something else. After an hour and 15 minutes, I happened to come back and there he was, still sitting in his chair! He got a lot of praise that day.

Our other dog, Buster, is a pit bull. He is highly skeptical of the Bailey chair. It’s fine when it’s empty, but if Bear is in it, Buster acts like it’s the electric chair and will not come in the house even though he would never fit into this tiny chair. He skulks outside the dog door until Bear is out of it.

It may be harder now to explain to a pet sitter what this vertical feeding is all about, but living with a dog with a megaesophagus is very do-able. But please, I don’t need a third one…


August 4, 2022

Now I have had a few of megaesophagus puppies in three of my litters over the last 20 plus years.  Now adult onset is far different than puppy and many puppies are just developmentally behind which I don't see (unless I missed it) mentioned in this article.  Everyone of my puppies over came it before they were 6months old  and went on to pet homes and lived or are living very normal lives.  It just takes a little time and work in the beginning.

May 12, 2022

We just got a puppy a Frenchie 2 months ago and we aré devastated because the vet says she needs surgery because she has megaesopahagus and she will not survive . She is not gaining any weight this breaking my heart especially my girls not sure what to do. I started feeding her while she is standing hope this works

May 7, 2022

I have a 7mo shepherd with mild ME doing well but wondering if a collar could hurt her neck/esp. she pulls on leash when excited and seems to clear her throat for a bit after could collar be reason?

Dawn Walsh
October 6, 2021

My 18 month old Labradoodle just got diagnosed with congenital Mega esophagus. We are devastated. We are going to try everything we can to help her. So far we are feeding her soupy food sitting her upright for 30 minutes after meals. She’s on an antibiotic as she got the aspiration phenomena for the first time. The doctor gave her pills to coat her stomach, pills to help her food go faster to her stomach, and CBC oil for her pain and inflammation that may occur.  Im going to try the viagra next.  She’s seems to be doing slightly better. She did not vomit up her food at night for the first time.

Sherri Simpson
November 13, 2020

Help!!! We just got diagnosed w ME - he’s a 90 lb American bull dog & does not understand any of this...the worse part so far is keeping him upright 20 mins afterwards ughh

September 26, 2020

My 4 yr old female shepherd Fena Jayne was diagnosed with myasthenia  Gravis thurs.Along with that pneumonia an megaesophagus.She had been treated by a local vet for a 6 weeks.They couldn’t figure out what was wrong .she was deteriorating  quickly.i was told to bring her home an... Well I brought her to a internal specialist who diagnosed her in 2 hrs. She stayed at hospital for 3 days .Picked her up this morning am she is so much better. so my questions are .How do I feed her until I get a chair Does her water have to be elevated. Basically any ,any advice would be greatly appreciated

Kelly Monteleone
July 29, 2020

My 10 1/2 year old boxer mix was diagnosed about a month ago. My husband built the bailey chair for him right away. While he is keeping food down he still isn’t gaining weight. He also has cushings so his poor back legs are quite weak with almost no muscle. I am hoping to find a better vet to help me through this journey.

Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM
July 27, 2020

Hi Connie, So sorry for the delayed reply.  If you haven't already, you should absolutely discuss your concerns with your veterinarian, making sure they know she is leaking milk from her nose.  They will be best able to guide diagnostics.

Connie Ostrowski
July 22, 2020

I have a 10 day old Shih Tzu puppy who I believe has this. Milk keeps coming out from around her nose and the vet put her on Amoxicillan for Aspiration pneumonia today. What test do we request for proper diagnosis? The Barium Swallow Study?

June 30, 2020

I just picked up my dog from the hospital today who has this condition. He is a 12 year old chichauau and could not be more sweet. After the first day of watching him suffer I as many pet owners wonder how long. I keep reading articles that say there is a 90 day life span. I am not sure I want to go down the direction of the feeding tube and will take every day at a time. I am just wondering if he will improve. .

May 18, 2020

My dog is 12 years old. He was diagnosed with the disorder this year. I’m planning on getting the chair for him. It’s just that he’s old and his back legs are weak and so are his hips. I’m afraid putting in the chair will be uncomfortable for him. I have no other choice though. He’s getting skinner by the day and can’t keep his food down. I’ve tried everything. From blending his food to water like consistency to hold him up. He’s a pretty large dog. He’s a catahoula mix. I’m hoping when I buy this it will make difference. I feel like I don’t have much time with him.

February 19, 2020

Our beautiful boy Marley a blue marl border collie, eight years old who hasn’t had a days illness in his life was diagnosed with megaesophagus just after Christmas. We think it was a anti inflammatory med that caused a lot of vomiting for a few weeks. It has been a very stressing time but we are coping with feeding him in a slanting position, blitzing his food with lots of liquid and massaging his chest and stomach again standing on a slant for about fifteen minutes. We have the support of a wonderful team of vets, who have put him on viagra, yes viagra which has had some marvellous results, apparently it strengthens the muscles of the oesophagus, he has been on it three weeks and yes it certainly seems Marley is easier,  not much regurgitating and dry coughing, we are presently taking a day at a time, we’ll do anything to keep our beautiful boy and make life easier for him, what a horrible disease no dog deserves it. Also no treats or biscuits and no water as this causes problems, they can’t make their way to his stomach.

April 21, 2019

Our 9 yo Bichon was recently diagnosed with this, probably idiopathic. Researching on the net, we have concluded that she also has myasthenia gravis since she has nearly all the recognized symptoms. We have raised her food platform and feed her many times throughout the day boiled chicken and hamburger processed in the food processor and hold her upright after eating and drinking. Always adding Pedialyte to the water as she’s been very dehydrated.  We are thinking about the Bailey chair but hope it won’t be necessary. Many sleepless nights trying to help our “kid”.

April 6, 2019

I applaud all who are or have dealt with canine megaeasophagus.  This problem, exasperated by the presence of a Thymoma and subsequently myasthenia gravis was a fatal situation for my much loved Rumor!  I was so willing to have a Bailey’s chair for her. Unfortunately, she could not survive the aspiration pneumonia, affects of surgery and the plasma phaerisis did little good in the face of her overwhelming illness.  I miss her like a limb!  Best to all who still have a chance!

February 28, 2019

I have a quite large 18 month German Shepherd with congenital mega esophagus and I walk outside and she immediately runs to her chair and stands with font paws on the chair seat and back paws planted on the ground. After she eats I spend about 20 minutes brushing her while she remains upright. This has really cut down on her regurgitation.

February 9, 2019

My dog was just diagnosed with this and it’s so challenging to feed her. She’s only 29 pounds, but she hates sitting on her hind legs and will only eat if we hold her upright. Even then I can’t hold her for 30 minutes after. I need to try the bailey chair or something else. I am afraid she will regurgitate all her food and water and lose too much weight.

Luciane Gorzkowski
July 25, 2018

I am in this situation right now. Bonnie was accepting food when I was giving to her with her head up, so she didn't regurgitate for a week. This past night, I don't know how many time she vomited/regurgitated. Today, I gave her Pedialite and she just threw up it all.I'm not sure what else to do until I get the Bailey chair. I'm pretty sure it was my fault that she is suffering today, as I tried to place her in another position, but she is a 80 pound German Shepherd, and I failed miserably.  I may have hurt her esophagus in this attempt to help her.

Ramie Ackley
July 25, 2018

My vet prescribed Viagra (yes, you heard that correctly) which is made for our dog at a compound pharmacy into small chicken flavored soft chews which we shoot down his mouth with his wet Fresh Pet food (cut into small chunks) twice a day.  His recovery has been nothing short of a miracle! Our vet read about this treatment in a vet journal and it has changed our dog's life and ours! Ask your vet about this treatment. It worked for our dog who is 65 pounds.  We feed him  with his head in a high position by holding the food up above along with the  med above his head while he sits on the floor on his hind legs. We don't even need the Bailey chair.  I hope this works for others!

Karen Silberman
April 16, 2018

Thanks for your article..we made a bailey chair for my little Yorkie but she is down to three pounds and we cant get her to stay in the chair..somehow she riggles out..i have been holding her upright..she tolerates that..sometimes falling asleep.i may try the chair again if no success i would love to give it to someone who can use is small meant for a five pound Yorkie

February 1, 2018

Hi Bart. Did you use the feeding tube? How did work?

Kathy Morris-Stilwell
December 4, 2017

Sherri - I just ran across your wonderful article!!! Thank you so much.

May 11, 2017

I have a shitzu that is 9 weeks old he regaturates a lot, he is skinny, makes funny clicking sounds out of his throat, was wondering if the feeding tube is a better option then gravity chair.

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