Megaesophagus is diagnosed by taking radiographs of the chest. Occasionally, contrast studies are needed to outline the esophagus. Constant motion studies looking at esophageal motility may be required in patients having indefinite thoracic radiographs. It is important to obtain these studies because there are other problems that can cause clinical signs similar to megaesophagus but require very different therapy.
Because of the potentially devastating side effects of megaesophagus, your veterinarian will recommend testing for an underlying cause. However, in many cases, treating the underlying cause does not resolve the megaesophagus.
Treatment consists of trying to help the food get from the mouth into the stomach. If food does not remain in the esophagus, it cannot be regurgitated and subsequently aspirated into the trachea or lungs. Dry, canned, and gruel diets should be tried to find the one best handled by your pet. Feeding your pet several small meals a day is generally preferred over feeding one to two larger meals. Medications may be given to help decrease gastroesophageal reflux, the movement of stomach acid into the esophagus.
It is important to use gravity to your advantage in feeding your pet. Ideally, you should feed them with their front end in a significantly elevated position and continue to elevate their front end for an additional 15 minutes following feeding (sitting up in a begging position). There is a Yahoo support group for people who have dogs with megaesophagus, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/megaesophagus/. It also has instructions on how to build an upright chair for feeding dogs with megaesophagus. (For severely affected patients, a tube can be placed into the stomach through the body wall. This allows the pet to receive food and water without anything going through the esophagus. However, this feeding technique does not eliminate the possibility of aspiration, as the pet is still swallowing saliva, but it may help diminish it. These feeding tubes can remain in for long periods of time, and depending on the type used, may need to be replaced periodically.
Unless an underlying cause can be found (and successfully treated), there is no cure for megaesophagus. In some patients, the regurgitation of food will become worse over time, whereas in others there is no change in the frequency of regurgitation. In those patients with progressive worsening of the disease, weight loss becomes a major problem.
The most significant crisis patients with megaesophagus face is food, water, and saliva getting into the trachea and into the lungs. This is called aspiration and can lead to aspiration pneumonia. In some instances, the pet will show signs of aspiration pneumonia (i.e., cough, labored breathing, fever) despite the owners never having seen evidence of regurgitation. This is because the pet may regurgitate the material into its mouth and then swallow it or inhale it without ever having the material leave its mouth. If only small amounts of material are aspirated into the trachea, a cough, which may be either moist or dry, will be the most obvious problem. If larger amounts are inhaled and the material reaches the lungs, severe pneumonia may result, causing fever and labored breathing. Nasal discharge can also occur when material is pushed into the back of the nose during regurgitation.
The major cause of death in patients with megaesophagus is aspiration pneumonia. If large amounts of material are aspirated and reach the lungs, the pet can develop sudden and severe pneumonia and can die from asphyxiation. Such a sudden death can occur at any time, even if the pet has not been regurgitating for several weeks or months.
It is not common for megaesophagus to spontaneously resolve (whether an underlying cause is found or not), but it is possible in a small number of cases. In cases that do resolve, it typically happens around six months after diagnosis.