Canine Acid Reflux: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Updated April 22, 2019
Dog looking at food bowl

Canine acid reflux is similar to the medical condition acid reflux found in humans. It can cause your dog pain and discomfort if not treated with help from your veterinarian.

The Causes of Canine Acid Reflux

Acid reflux is caused by a weak or damaged sphincter muscle in the lower esophagus.

  • Stomach acids push against the valve and enter into the esophagus.
  • While the stomach is protected from these acids, the lining of the esophagus is not, and the strong stomach acids irritate the delicate.
  • This most often happens after your pet has eaten a meal that is very high in fat.
  • It can also happen when your dog eats too much and his stomach is very full.

Acid Reflux From Surgery

Acid reflux can also be a result of improper fasting prior to surgery. Poor positioning of the dog during surgery can also cause acid reflux.

Hiatal Hernia

Another possibility to explain acid reflux is that your dog has a hiatal hernia that can be present at birth. A hernia can also be created by physical trauma. Congenital hiatal hernias tend to occur more in male dogs and in English Bulldogs and Shar Peis in particular.

Symptoms of Acid Reflux in Your Dog

Acid reflux in dogs produces a pain similar to heartburn in humans, but a dog can't tell you when he is uncomfortable. The chest begins to burn and nausea and indigestion may be present. If you're wondering if your dog may have acid reflux, it's important to know the symptoms of this condition. When a dog experiences acid reflux, you may notice some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Your dog may be more inactive than usual after meals. He may prefer to lie quietly for a period after eating.
  • He may gag after eating or have a chronic, dry cough coupled with the gagging.
  • Your pet may lose his appetite or eat less than normal.
  • He may lose weight.
  • The dog may seem to be in pain or distress; gassy, burping or pacing.
  • Your dog may whine when he swallows.
  • He may vomit or regurgitate his meals.
  • You may notice him licking more than normal and this can be licking objects such as the carpet, furniture or walls, or even licking at the air.
  • If the reflux is severe, your dog may salivate or drool, or he may even run a fever.
  • You may also notice your dog's symptoms being worse at night, which can happen if a dog is sleeping more often at this time of day. Lying down can lead to more acid flowing back into the esophagus.

Younger dogs seem to be more at risk than older dogs, probably because their muscles may not be totally developed.

How Acid Reflux Is Diagnosed

The most effective method for determining acid reflux in dogs is by the use of an esophagoscopy. A tiny camera is inserted in your dog's throat to view the lining of the esophagus and it can show the veterinarian any irregularities or bleeding in the esophagus. With this exam, the vet can see if there are changes in the tissue and mucus of the esophagus that are consistent with esophagitis, or reflux.

Vet examining bulldog in office

Diseases With Similar Acid Reflux Symptoms

There are other conditions that mimic acid reflux in dogs. These include:

Treatment Options

Treatment of canine acid reflux is simple and straightforward.

  1. Food is usually withheld for a day or two, and then the animal must be given a strict diet that includes small, frequent meals.
  2. Dietary fat and protein are limited since these substances increase the gastric acid.
  3. Gastrointestinal prokinetic agents are drugs that may be used to improve the way the contents of the stomach moves through the rest of the digestive system. They are also thought to strengthen the sphincter muscle at the opening of the stomach.

Feeding a Dog with Acid Reflux

Since diet can be a major contributor to the intensity of acid reflux, changing how you feed your dog is a key part of any treatment plan. Your veterinarian may also advise you to stick with this diet long-term if acid reflux is a chronic problem for your dog.

  • Veterinarians recommend feeding dogs with acid reflux a low-fat diet as a higher fat diet can contribute to weakness in the muscles involving the stomach and esophagus.
  • Low protein food is also part of treatment because protein can lead to a higher amount of gastric acid in the stomach.
  • Your dog should be fed several small meals per day to reduce the strain on the stomach and decrease gastric acid production.
  • Wet food is often recommended or your veterinarian may suggest a dry kibble soaked in water or bone broth which reduces the acidity of the food.
  • Choose foods with easy-to-digest, plain and lean ingredients, such as chicken, turkey and fish.
  • Feeding canned, plain pumpkin in small amounts with each meal can help "settle your dog's stomach" and provide your dog with some bulk.
  • Other ingredients that can help settle your dog's stomach are ice chips, sweet potatoes, bananas and bone broth.
  • Your veterinarian may prescribe a prescription dog food such as Hill's i/d canned food or Royal Canin Gastrointestinal Food.
  • Some commercially available foods that work well for dogs with acid reflux are:
  • Some dog owners suggest that feeding a dog from a raised food bowl can help with acid reflux, though no conclusive support has been found to demonstrate if this is true or not.
Dog eating from raised bowl

Honey and Coconut Oil for Acid Reflux

Honey has been found to be useful for humans with acid reflux and some dog owners will use it with their dogs suffering from acid reflux. Honey is safe for dogs but should be given at a rate of no more than one teaspoon per day as it's high in sugar and calories. Another common ingredient used to help humans with acid reflux is coconut oil which is also safe for dogs.

Be Consistent With Care

Your dog will need to be regularly monitored for reflux. It is important to keep him on the diet and feeding schedule that your vet suggests. Each incident of gastric reflux will further weaken the esophagus and increase the chances that there will continue to be problems.

Dogs and Antacids

Dogs can be given antacid medication to help bring down the level of acidity but this should only be done in consultation with your veterinarian. Common antacids can have negative reactions if your dog is taking other medications. They're also not as effective as other medications your veterinarian can prescribe such as acid suppressants.

Dogs and OTC Stomach Medications

Antacid medications like Tums can be given to dogs, but never give your dog any OTC medication without discussing it with your veterinarian first. Another common stomach medication, Pepto Bismal, is generally safe to dogs but can cause gastric bleeding which makes it a bad choice for dogs with acid reflux.

Seek Veterinary Care

Anytime you suspect that your pet is in distress, it is a good idea to have your veterinarian check him out. Acid reflux symptoms are similar to symptoms of other illnesses, so your dog should be examined as soon as possible. By feeding a healthy diet and not allowing your pet to gorge on food, you may be able to keep him from ever developing this problem. If he is overweight, talk to your vet about a reducing diet. Extra weight can increase the possibility that your pet will develop acid reflux.

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Canine Acid Reflux: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment