Before it happened to my own dog, I had no idea what acid reflux looked like — or that dogs could even get it.
Until I saw this: Shiva, my three-year-old Boxer, 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 don’t know what it is.
What Does Acid Reflux Look Like In Dogs?
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
Your dog may have these additional signs:
- Bad breath
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Signs of pain like whining while eating
- Low activity after meals
- Fever in severe cases
In Shiva’s case, 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 non-stop for 24 hours. My dog got zero rest and I didn’t get much more. Listening to it is hard enough, so I shudder to think how awful it actually feels. In 24 hours, 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 saw a correlation between bouts of acid reflux and when Shiva ate previously frozen meat. This differed from when he ate meat that was fresh and had never been frozen.
Why Vet Treatments May Not Help
Once you’ve seen acid reflux, you won’t miss it again.
Formal diagnosis typically involves a scope to view the esophageal lining. This rules out a hiatal hernia. It can form at the opening in the diaphragm where the esophagus joins the stomach. Dogs may show similar symptoms as they would for acid reflux. Sometimes vets will use other procedures, including an x-ray called an esophagram. It’s done in conjunction with a barium swallow to check for ulcers and any narrowing of the esophagus. Barium is a dense mineral mixed with fluid and syringed down a dog’s throat. Then an x-ray shows its progress through the digestive tract to indicate any blockage.
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 a little relief with diets that are low fat and lowish in protein. Other owners try home-cooking meals. This avoids preservatives and other ingredients that seem to trigger acid reflux. Each dog seems to be different so there’s a lot of experimentation.
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. Plus other acid-reducing medications including Omeprazole (Prilosec). It’s a proton pump inhibitor used to reduce the production of stomach acid. Prolonged use of these drugs carries considerable health risks.
Metoclopramide is 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 medical literature and you’ll find plenty of references to acid reflux, but in humans. Dogs seem to rate a mention only as experimental subjects. I found a study in the veterinary journals, but it related solely to acid reflux that occurs during anesthesia.
The mechanism that produces acid reflux is 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.
There can also be a problem with the closure of the lower esophageal sphincter. That’s where the food pipe meets the stomach.
Other causes of acid reflux can be:
- Allergies or food intolerances
- Poor digestion
- Eating too much to overfill the stomach
- High-fat meals
- Intestinal dysbiosis (a microbial imbalance)
- Bowel disorders
- Chronic vomiting
- Foreign body in the esophagus
- Even cancer of the esophagus
Unresolved, acid reflux can damage the mucosal lining of the esophagus. That causes inflammation as well as discomfort. So figuring out the underlying cause is important.
My Experience With Acid Reflux
Shiva’s acid reflux began after 11 months on high-dose steroids for meningitis (which is a whole other story). The steroids suppressed his immune system. That led to giving him a cocktail of antibiotics to treat infections.
It was a hellish year.
Incidentally, I know of another Boxer treated for meningitis. He also experienced onset of acid reflux. This happened 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 this principle. They believe pharmaceuticals place a burden on the body. They cause the body to metabolize those drugs and remove the associated toxins.
When medication stops, the burden lifts and the body clears out accumulated toxins. Then it can repair 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 causes toxins to be released and eliminated through the bowels. That can irritate the lower digestive tract. That’s why a detox process might present as symptoms affecting the upper digestive tract too.
In the months before the onset of Shiva’s acid reflux, I also used a chlorhexidine-containing antibacterial mouthwash 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.)
He had those chemicals dripping down his throat. I have to wonder if that contributed to the damage that resulted in the acid reflux.
How We Managed Acid Reflux
As things progressed, we tried a list of remedies suggested by others to address acid reflux in dogs:
- Yogurt and grated apple before bed
- Slippery elm bark powder
We also tried …
- 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. But 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.
And here are some solutions to try on a digestive level.
Natural Dietary Solutions to Manage Acid Reflux
There are also some changes you can make to your dog’s diet to help with acid reflux.
- Protein increases stomach acidity so feeding less protein can reduce acidity.
- A blend of prebiotics and probiotics can address intestinal dysbiosis and help return balance to the gut.
- Digestive enzymes can help improve your dog’s digestion. They minimize acid production, improve nutrient absorption and support detoxification.
Our Ultimate Solution
Here’s what seems to be working for us at the moment:
1. Remove the 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. Then they briefly return with decreasing frequency. I’m interpreting this pattern from within a detox framework. I consider it a resurgence of symptoms on the way to deep and permanent healing.
The Principle Behind Fasting
Fasting can be psychologically challenging for some owners. 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 isn’t 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 hear that every cell in the human body is replaced every 7 years? Well, that’s not quite accurate as some cells stay with us for a lifetime. But gut epithelial cells replace themselves about every 5 to 7 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 broken down, 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.
Dogs And Fruit
Dogs are facultative carnivores. 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. It creates another burden in the form of a drug the dog’s body has to metabolize and eliminate. Only then can it 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. Then we return 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
Here are some other things that might work for your dog.
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 … but slower healing.
Find a balance. Ideally, as the acid reflux heals, your dog can handle larger meals without triggering symptoms. Then you can move towards feeding at one end of the day.
Leaner Cuts Of Meat
Lower fat meats are easier to digest.
Skinless chicken breast with visible fat trimmed is 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. Since they’re very fatty, I cut off a lot of fat 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 an oily fish. If they aggravate your dog’s reflux, avoid them.
Be Patient And Persistent
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’s no quick fix … each dog is different. But Shiva’s experience is testament to the fact that you can heal canine acid reflux. 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. Just remember, you’re not alone.
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