How to Detect, Prevent, and Treat GERD in Pets

The health of pets is a topic that has been trending for a few years. From natural diets for dogs to alternative therapies for cats, we’re beginning to take their health just as seriously as we do our own.

This includes being more aware of our pets’ physical wellbeing and recognizing possible symptoms. Symptoms are the body’s way of expressing a problem. The problem is that we don’t ever really know how our pets are feeling, especially those pets who aren’t very vocal in general. This means we simply have to pay better attention to how they’re acting.

In this article, we’re going to do a deep-dive into all things GERD-related in pets of all shapes and sizes. We’ll specifically be looking at what GERD is, what causes it, what the symptoms and treatments are like, and how you can help prevent GERD in your pets.

What is GERD?

According to Dr. Karen Becker, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, is “a condition in which there is an uncontrolled backflow of gastric or intestinal fluids into the esophagus, which is the tube that connects the throat to the stomach.”

Gastrointestinal fluids can cause damage to the mucosal lining of the esophagus. GERD is common in both cats and dogs. Animals who have been born with hiatal hernias have an increased risk of getting GERD.

PetMD.com adds that GERD can affect dogs of any age, but that younger dogs are more at risk. They say that gastrointestinal juices like stomach acid, pepsin, and bile salts can cause inflammation of the esophagus, which over time causes permanent damage.

What Causes GERD in Pets?

Dr. Becker says there are a number of things that could cause GERD in pets, but added that there are a few causes that are most likely.

  • Problems during anesthesia
    Any time a pet is given anesthesia that causes the esophageal sphincter to relax, thereby creating an opening between the stomach and the esophagus, you increase the risk for GERD. This can happen if the animal is improperly positioned on the surgery table while anesthetized, or if the animal hasn’t fasted properly before the surgery.
  • If the pet has a congenital condition
    When an animal is born with a hiatal hernia, this means there is a protrusion of abdominal content into the chest cavity. Younger pets are at greater risk, because their esophageal sphincters are still developing.
  • Chronic vomiting
    Chronic vomiting also increases the risk of your animals getting GERD, but it also increases the chance of them getting cancer of the esophagus.

One of the causes of GERD in both people and dogs is obesity. The obesity epidemic in America has reached epic proportions. Like humans, dogs need to have a regulated and healthy diet that keeps their weight under control. If a dog is already overweight, there are ways to help it lose weight and live a healthier lifestyle.

What are GERD Symptoms in Pets?

Nadia Ali noticed something wasn’t right with her cat one day that eventually led to a GERD diagnosis. Ali said this of her cat, Cici, “she seemed to be pawing at her mouth rather than licking at her foot.”

Cici then swung her head back and forth leaving a trail of saliva with each shift in direction. She followed this up with an intense coughing fit. This back and forth sequence repeat itself several times.

Ali said she thought of several possible reasons for her cat’s behavior ― a stuck hairball, she’d eaten something poisonous, she was choking, or had teeth pain ― but nothing truly made sense. So, Ali made an appointment with her vet to have an x-ray taken. The vet determined that Cici was suffering from GERD.

Typical symptoms of GERD include:

  • Heartburn
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Excessive salivation
  • Regurgitation
  • Gas and bloating
  • Pain or discomfort in the chest
  • Intolerance of certain foods and liquids
  • Bad breath

A physical exam won’t always reveal what the problem is, but it’s a good place to start when trying to determine if your pet has GERD or is suffering from another ailment.

What are GERD Treatments for Pets?

PetMD.com says that most treatments can be done at home.

Fasting

Have your pet fast for one or two days.  After that, you’ll need to instigate some dietary changes, namely in the amounts of fat and protein the animal consumes.

Change their Diet

Fat decreases the strength of the muscles between the esophagus and the stomach, and protein stimulates gastric acid secretion, both of which contribute to GERD. PetMD.com also recommends small, frequent feedings.

Dr. Becker adds that GERD doesn’t usually require hospitalization unless it’s a severe case, which often requires a feeding tube or IV feeding to help administer nutrients. She also recommends a low-fat and low-protein diet and small, frequent meals.

After the healing process, Dr. Becker recommends cooking bland veggies and meats for your pet. Since many GERD pets also have food sensitivities, you may want to eliminate gluten, rice, soy, and all genetically-modified foods, along with preservatives, additives, and colorings.

Medicine

If a change in diet doesn’t do the trick, medications can be considered an option, particularly prokinetic agents that help to improve the movement of stomach contents through the digestive process.

If diet alone doesn’t fix the problem, Dr. Becker says gastric acid inhibitors ― medications designed to soothe the esophageal lining ― might help significantly. She also recommends GI motility drugs that help improve digestion, and antibiotics if infections are present. Though, to keep a pet’s microbiome in tip-top shape, probiotics should always accompany antibiotics.

What happened with Ali and Cici?

However, for Cici, a change in diet was all it took. Ali focused on “a fresh, organic, nutritionally-balanced, whole food species-appropriate diet supplemented with organic herbs and nutraceuticals specifically selected to treat and remedy the symptoms of GERD.”

She also combined that special diet with better awareness on her part for Cici’s health, including noticing any signs of discomfort.

Dr. Becker advocates for using alternative therapies like chiropractic care and acupuncture for animals suffering from GERD. From what she’s seen, the results have been consistently positive for reducing the intensity and frequency of GERD symptoms. If you can help limit the symptoms, you can greatly improve the quality of life for your pet.

Costs Associated With GERD

As with any chronic illness, your pet getting a GERD diagnosis can be costly. To start, just getting the diagnosis can take several vet appointments and various tests to finally come to that conclusion.

The bills can pile up and quickly get out of hand, and not paying them promptly can have many consequences. To help mitigate this, be sure to seek out a vet who is willing to work with you on financing options. Allow monthly payments rather than upfront payment. This will also help with future vet visits as you manage your pet’s lifetime chronic condition.

Other costs will include all of the diet changes and medications your pet will need. Specialty foods for pets typically come with a hefty price, and there are not many options to choose from.

In addition, your pet may need extra supplements that will help manage symptoms or make up for lost vitamins not found in some limited-ingredient pet foods. Your pet with GERD will also likely require daily medication. Filling their medication every month is an extra cost to account for in your budget.

How to Prevent GERD in Pets?

The first step to preventing GERD in your pets is to eliminate unhealthy foods from your dog’s diet.

However, it also pays to understand how certain foods affect your pets. A saliva test is a good idea for helping to eliminate any allergenic foods from your pet’s diet. Dr. Becker says that beyond maintaining a low-fat diet, adding probiotics, bentonite clay, and colostrum to your pet’s diet may also help.

Colostrum is milk produced from mammary glands during the final stage of pregnancy. It has numerous gut-healing benefits, high nutrient content, and helps to prevent GERD by reducing inflammation and promoting muscle healing.

It could also be beneficial to use bentonite clay for sick pets. If your pet is vomiting, add a little clay to your their water for them to drink. It could help stop the vomiting, as well as relieve symptoms of diarrhea, bloating, and gas.

Dr. Becker also points out how important it is to know exactly what’s affecting your pet’s physical condition. Since both a lack of stomach acid and overproduction of stomach acid can cause GERD, you’ll want to know which is affecting your pet. If you supplement to increase acid production in an animal that’s already producing too much, it’s going to make matters worse.

Checking your pet’s source of water is also a good idea, according to Dr. Becker. It’s important for your pet to get fluoride-free water, but it’s even more important for animals with GERD.

For all pets whose root cause of GERD is a hiatal hernia, Dr. Becker says repairing that condition can help prevent and eliminate symptoms of GERD. She also advocates to reduce late-night feedings as it can contribute to worsening symptoms in the morning.

Older pets especially are going to have more health challenges that younger pets. If you have an older dog, you’ll want to know what the most common health issues are and keep an eye on your dog for any signs of these. Early detection works equally well for people and dogs.

Wrap Up

GERD has almost as many causes as it does symptoms, which is why it’s such a difficult condition to diagnose. It doesn’t help that your pets cannot speak up and tell you how they’re feeling. For this reason, it’s vitally important to become more aware of how your pet is feeling in general. Keep an eye out for any signs of GERD or any other disease or condition.

If you suspect that your pet may be suffering from GERD, it’s important to take your pet to the vet immediately. There are a number of different natural treatments available to pets, as well as specific medications that may also help. Just make sure you understand the totality of the problem, including food allergies, before settling on a specific course of action. Also, remember that prevention is always easier than treatment.

About the Author
Frankie Wallace writes about a wide variety of different topics, from environmental issues to politics. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho

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