Acid reflux is commonly recognized by vomiting and lip licking and is an indication of a problem in a dog's gastrointestinal tract. Knowing what is potentially causing this issue and what can be done about it can help dog owners provide the best possible care for a dog with acid reflux.
What Is Acid Reflux?
Acid reflux is also known as gastroesophageal reflux and can occur in dogs when the contents of the stomach and intestines flows in the wrong direction. It is uncontrollable. A temporary opening of the sphincter leading from the esophagus to the stomach along with a reverse flow of the gastrointestinal system will cause a dog to vomit the contents of the stomach.
Signs of Acid Reflux in Dogs
- Vomiting bile
- Regurgitation of food
- Decreased appetite
- Pain while swallowing
- Lip Licking
- Restlessness at night
Unlike a dog that is sick, vomiting, and not feeling well, dogs with acid reflux may not act abnormally until the contents of their stomach suddenly appear.
A common sign of acid reflux in dogs is the vomiting of bile or regurgitation of undigested food shortly after being consumed. Bile is the yellow substance that is seen in an empty stomach. It usually passes through the stomach and into the intestines but if a dog has acid reflux it may come out the mouth.
Regurgitation of food can occur for other reasons, but some dogs with acid reflux will experience a reversal of the flow of stomach contents shortly after eating due to increased pressure on the muscle separating the stomach and esophagus. This causes the food to be spit back up or regurgitated. If this regurgitation continues to occur and a dog doesn't get the calories and nutrients from the food it is eating weight loss will occur.
Not all dogs with gastric reflux will vomit or regurgitate though. Some dogs will have much more subtle symptoms due to presence of stomach acid in the esophagus. These symptoms may include lip licking, teeth grinding, or restlessness and anxiety at night.
If left untreated for some time, chronic vomiting of bile can lead to inflammation of the esophagus called esophagitis. This can cause pain while swallowing and lead to an unwillingness to want to eat.
Causes of Acid Reflux
Acid reflux can be caused by a few things:
- Chronic vomiting: Sometimes dogs will develop long term vomiting from medications or a disease process. This can lead to acid reflux.
- Anesthesia: When a dog receives anesthetic drugs the gastroesophageal sphincter that normally prevents the stomach contents from going back up the esophagus relaxes. If a dog is positioned so that the head is below the stomach when it is under anesthesia these stomach contents may leak out.
- Hiatal hernia: Also known as a diaphragmatic hernia, this defect is something that may increase the risk for a dog to develop acid reflux. Hiatal hernias occur when there is an opening in the diaphragm allowing part of the stomach, intestines, or liver to enter the chest cavity. Due to the abnormal positioning of the stomach this can result in acid reflux. A large hiatal hernia can often be seen on an X-ray but small hernias may be harder to see.
Diagnosing Acid Reflux in Dogs
It can be difficult to diagnose acid reflux since it isn't visible from the outside of a dog so a physical examination by a veterinarian doesn't usually find any abnormalities that would point to a diagnosis of acid reflux. A history of how the dog is acting at home, vomiting bile or regurgitating food, not wanting to eat, is exhibiting pain when swallowing by crying or whining, or is losing weight will aid a veterinarian in diagnosing this condition. Sometimes a dog experiences acid reflux while at the animal hospital so a veterinarian can see it first hand.
Endoscopy is the diagnostic tool of choice. This involves anesthesia and putting an endoscope into the esophagus so that the little camera can show the veterinarian what the lining of the esophagus looks like.
Treatment of Acid Reflux in Dogs
Medications and dietary restrictions are necessary to manage acid reflux but if it is caused by a hiatal hernia surgery will also be needed. Food is often restricted for a day or two and then a low-fat and low-protein food is fed in small, frequent intervals throughout the day. Except for surgery, treatment is usually managed by the dog owner at home.
Rodríguez-Alarcón, CA et al. Gastroesophageal Reflux In Anesthetized Dogs: A Review. Revista Colombiana De Ciencias Pecuaria, vol 28, no. 2, 2015. Universidad De Antioquia, doi:10.17533/udea.rccp.v28n2a03
Muenster, M. et al. Gastro-Oesophageal Reflux Disease In 20 Dogs (2012 To 2014). Journal Of Small Animal Practice, vol 58, no. 5, 2017, pp. 276-283. Wiley, doi:10.1111/jsap.12646
Esophagitis In Small Animals. Veterinary Manual, 2020