Before it happened to my own dog, I had no idea what acid reflux looked like — or that dogs could even get it.
What I could see was that my three-year-old Boxer Shiva was swallowing and licking his lips in an almost compulsive manner … and snapping his jaws like he was trying to catch his tongue.
It wasn’t until another dog owner recognized the telltale signs, that I learned this was acid reflux. It’s sometimes also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Perhaps it’s happening to your dog and you haven’t known what it is.
What Does Acid Reflux In Dogs Look Like?
Shiva experienced about a dozen different symptoms, usually all of them at once. It’s truly miserable to witness.
His symptoms included:
- Air licking
- Jaw snapping
- Drooling (a sign of nausea in dogs)
- Licking his own fur or fabric of his bed or the couch
- Trying to eat specks of dust, leaves or anything he could find (likely trying to soothe the burning in the throat)
- Gulping or loud swallowing
- Dry retching
- Harsh coughing
- Vomiting, both food and clear fluid
- Stomach or throat gurgling
The onset would be sudden, usually within a few hours of a meat meal.
One minute my dog would be blissfully asleep with his legs in the air, the next he would be in the grip of an attack.
In the beginning, the episodes lasted literally non-stop for 24 hours. My dog got zero rest and myself not much more. Listening to it is hard enough, so I shudder to think how awful it actually feels.
24 hours later, it would stop like clockwork. If we made it past six hours after a meal without incident, we were usually in the clear.
Fruit never precipitated a full-blown attack … only meat. Larger meat meals and fattier meats seemed more likely to result in an episode.
We’re told enzymes in food are not denatured by freezing. But I sometimes thought I saw a correlation between bouts of acid reflux and Shiva’s eating meat that had been frozen … as opposed to meat that was fresh and had never been frozen.
Conventional Veterinary Treatments For Acid Reflux In Dogs
Once you’ve seen acid reflux, you won’t miss it again.
Formal diagnosis typically involves a scope to view the esophageal lining and rule out a hiatal hernia. Sometimes vets will use other procedures, including an x-ray called an esophagram. This is done in conjunction with a barium swallow to check for ulcers and any narrowing of the esophagus.
Conventional veterinary treatment usually involves drugs to reduce stomach acid (I’ll tackle the problems with this approach later).
Vets may also suggest modifying the diet. They often recommend prescription dog foods using hydrolyzed or novel proteins. They believe acid reflux can be caused by intolerances to particular animal proteins.
Some dogs find some relief with diets that are low fat and lowish in protein. Other owners try home-cooking meals to avoid preservatives and other ingredients that seem to trigger acid reflux. There’s a lot of experimentation and each dog seems to be different.
The Problem With Drugs
I filled a prescription from my vet for Famotidine (Pepcid) but thankfully never gave the drug.
It’s a histamine-2 blocker that decreases the amount of acid the stomach produces. (Remember I said there was a problem with drugs that lower stomach acid? We’re getting to the why.)
I’ve seen many owners give their dog this and other acid-reducing medications … including Omeprazole (Prilosec) which is a proton pump inhibitor. Prolonged use of these drugs carries considerable health risks.
Metoclopramide is commonly prescribed to increase motility of the gastrointestinal tract and treat nausea. It can cause many adverse effects, including neurological problems like seizures. Some owners have tried ginger in place of this pharmaceutical.
The usual trajectory with all these drugs seems to be that they appear to work for a while, but the acid reflux inevitably returns.
So, let’s back up a step.
What Causes Acid Reflux In Dogs?
Search the medical literature and you find plenty of references to acid reflux, but in humans. By and large, dogs rate a mention only as experimental subjects. I did find a study in the veterinary journals, but it related solely to acid reflux that occurs during anesthesia.
The mechanism that produces acid reflux appears similar in both dogs and humans. It happens when gastrointestinal fluids like bile, pepsin or stomach acid backflow into the esophagus.
And here’s where we get to the problem with drugs that reduce stomach acid…
Overproduction of stomach acid is only one of the causes of acid reflux. The opposite situation … meaning too little stomach acid, or hypochlorhydria … can also be to blame. You can see how giving acid reducing drugs would exacerbate acid reflux in this case.
Or there can be a problem with the closure of the lower esophageal sphincter, where the food pipe meets the stomach. Other causes of acid reflux can be: anesthesia, chronic vomiting, a foreign body in the esophagus or even cancer of the esophagus.
Unresolved, acid reflux can damage the mucosal lining of the esophagus, causing inflammation as well as discomfort.
(All this can happen to cats too.)
Shiva’s Acid Reflux
Shiva’s acid reflux began after 11 months on high-dose steroids for meningitis (which is a whole other story!) He’d also taken a cocktail of antibiotics to treat infections caused by the steroid’s suppression of his immune system.
It was a hellish year.
Incidentally, I know of another Boxer treated for meningitis … who also experienced onset of acid reflux just as the long-term, high-dose steroids were tapered and removed.
This direct experience makes me theorize that acid reflux can sometimes arise as part of a detox reaction, when drugs are removed.
In human health, natural medicine practitioners like Dr Robert Morse operate on the principle that pharmaceuticals place a burden on the body … which has to metabolize those drugs and remove the associated toxins.
When that burden is lifted by discontinuing the medication, the body begins to clear out accumulated toxins and can start repairing damage done by the drugs to the digestive tract (and the rest of the body).
Both prednisolone and antibiotics are known to be rough on the gut.
Detox can irritate the lower digestive tract as toxins are released and eliminated through the bowels. So perhaps a detox process might present as symptoms affecting the upper digestive tract too.
Another Possible Factor?
In the weeks and months preceding the onset of Shiva’s acid reflux, I’d used a chlorhexidine-containing antibacterial mouth wash on him. I’d also used an antiseptic mouth gel. I was trying to prevent infection of open mouth sores he had as another side effect of prednisolone. (This was all before I discovered natural alternatives.)
I wonder whether those chemicals dripping down his throat contributed to the damage that eventually resulted in the acid reflux.
Natural Ways to Manage Acid Reflux
As things progressed, we tried a host of remedies anecdotally recommended for acid reflux in dogs:
- Yoghurt and grated apple before bed
- Slippery elm bark powder
- Elevating his head higher than his torso (I sit on the couch and have him stand on his hind legs with his paws and chest resting on my legs. This still does seem to help relieve an attack, though it comes back as soon as he lies back down.)
- Going for a walk (This still helps. It seems to distract him from the discomfort and snap him out of it for a little while at least.)
- Syringing water into his mouth at the first sign of an attack seemed to work for a while
Our Ultimate Solution
Here’s what seems to be working for us at the moment:
1. Removal of cause – ie, all drugs
2. Fast days or fruit days – so he’s not eating meat every day
Shiva’s bouts of acid reflux are becoming less frequent. We had a rough night this past week … but before that he’d been two months without an attack.
The symptoms seem to resolve almost completely and then briefly return, with decreasing frequency. I’m interpreting this pattern, from within a detox framework, as a resurgence of symptoms, on the way to deep and permanent healing.
The Principle Behind Fasting
Fasting can be psychologically challenging for some owners … but wolves fast regularly in the wild as part of the natural cycle of boom and bust. There is reason to think fasting is as good for dogs as it is for humans.
It’s about digestive rest.
Here’s the logic. When the body is not occupied digesting meat, it can use its energy for cellular repair and regeneration processes.
This is a natural process that happens all the time … especially during sleep. It’s called autophagy.
Ever heard how every cell in the human body is replaced every seven years? Well, that’s not quite accurate, as some cells stay with us for a lifetime.
But gut epithelial cells do replace themselves about every five to seven days. To give your dog’s gut a chance to heal, you want to offer maximum digestive rest.
The protein and especially the fat in meat, make the body work hard to break it down. Fat must be emulsified, which is an energy-intensive process.
By contrast, the simple sugars in ripe to overripe fruit are much easier to digest. They pass through the stomach much faster and provide free calories. By that I mean calories that the body expends little energy to receive.
Fruit In Dogs
Dogs are facultative carnivores. This means they can sustain themselves on secondary foods (fruit) when their preferred prey isn’t available.
Great fruits for dogs include bananas and mangoes. I’ve also fed fresh, pitted dates, which are more nutrient-dense.
Fasting or feeding fruit accelerates the body’s detoxification processes. If the reflux happened as part of detox, fasting or feeding fruit should speed up toxin elimination. It helps move your dog through the reflux symptoms to the healed state that’s on the other side.
By this way of thinking, you can see how giving drugs to “treat” acid reflux is a fool’s errand.
At best, it will only mask symptoms for a time without healing the underlying cause.
At worst, it adds to the problem by creating another burden in the form of a drug the dog’s body has to metabolize and eliminate … before it can get back to the real task of healing the gut.
If you decide to try this for your dog, you’ll need to experiment a bit. Try varying the frequency of fasting or eating fruit to see what suits him best.
For Shiva, I usually alternate meat and fruit days. But if he has an acid reflux attack, I fast him for a day or two before returning to the meat and fruit rotation.
It’s also a bit of a balancing act! He seems to feel better with a 3-day rotation of meat-fasting-fruit, but then he has trouble keeping weight on.
Other Things You Can Try
Smaller, More Frequent Meals
A smaller meal is less work for the gut. This is a trade-off. Feeding more often means less digestive rest between meals … and so slower healing.
Find a balance. Ideally, as the acid reflux heals and your dog can handle larger meals without triggering symptoms, you can move towards feeding at one end of the day only.
Leaner Cuts Of Meat
Lower fat meats are easier to digest.
Chicken breasts with the skin and all visible fat trimmed are one of the leanest cuts of meat you can offer. Trim fat pockets from chicken carcasses if that’s what you’re feeding as your edible bone quotient.
I still give lamb necks as recreational bones … but since they’re very fatty, I cut a lot of fat off and don’t feed them too often.
Fresh whole sardines can be a more digestible option for edible bone while your dog’s digestion is compromised. However, sardines are also an oily fish, so if they aggravate your dog’s reflux, avoid them.
Be Patient, And Persist
Maybe you’re contemplating how to treat your dog’s acid reflux. Or maybe your dog is stuck on the merry-go-round of drugs and you want to get off.
It will take time, there is no quick fix. But Shiva’s experience is testament to the fact that canine acid reflux can be healed. You need to remove the cause and support the body’s natural regenerative processes by what and how you feed.
Acid reflux in dogs is more common than you might think. There are even social media groups devoted to the problem. So remember, you’re not alone.