This is my fourth and final entry focussing on canine megaesophagus. Today’s posting might be subtitled, Fun With Gravity.
After ruling out secondary causes, the veterinarian’s diagnosis was Canine Idiopathic Megaesophagus, which is apparently Latin for “the dog’s sick for some reason.” So, no meds, no thoracic surgery, just attention to the laws of math and physics was open to us as treatment for poggles. This arts-major momma has had to learn about…
1. Probability. The more a coin is flipped, the greater the chance of seeing its head. For an m.e. dog, the more often he’s fed, the greater the chance of food seeing his stomach. We began with five small meals a day: two in the morning, one at noon, and two in the evening. Also, the higher the quality of the food, the more nutrition the pooch will get. We were told to stay with puppy food for as long as he was regurgitating, because its protein content is higher than that of adult food. The vet even suggested a stint with cat food, the protein level of which is so high that it makes normal dogs sick.
2. Friction. Dry food doesn’t slide well in a damp digestive tube. We soak the kibble to mush. We used to place a day’s worth of kibble and tapwater in a lidded container in the fridge overnight, but lately have been simply pouring boiling water over a meal’s worth, right in the food dish, and covering it with a plate while we go out for a romp.
3. Density. Soaked kibble has a higher density than dry kibble, and so the force of gravity on it is higher. (Tinned food is just as dense, and makes a tasty addition to the kibble porridge.) Just as important to note is that kibble gives water a higher density, too. Our puppy would toss most of his drinking water, so all the liquid added to his food helps enormously in keeping him hydrated.
4. Geometry. The closer to a ninety-degree angle something is, the longer the distance that gravity gets to work its magic. Sleeping in the papasan helps keep our dog’s head up and his food down. But long before we bought the oversized doggie doughnut bed, we trained our Cardigan to stand with his front feet on a stepstool and eat his food out of a bowl on a yet-higher shelf, giving him an angle somewhere between 45 and 60 degrees. At first we stood behind him with our hands on his ribcage, till he got used to the odd position. Then, as soon as he finished a meal, one of us would pick him up, dandle him upright on her lap, and stroke his back and tummy till he let out a good belch. (Sometimes I belched first, as a hint.) Because he didn’t like this last manouevre too much, we started getting him to remain with his front feet on the stepstool till he burped. Over time, he got the idea, and would just stay there himself, licking his emptied bowl and thinking happy unbarfy thoughts. Before reaching that level of expertise, his most celebrated lunch was probably the one on the Lion’s Head lookout on the Bruce Peninsula, where a group of puzzled rock climbers got to watch two middle-aged lady hikers burping a corgi.
5. Temperature. Heat makes things move. If poggles is panting, he’ll toss his drinking water faster than you can say get-the-towels. We try to build in cool-down time before letting him quench his thirst. Similarly, we’ve learned to feed him after, not before, a play session. If he eats just before going out, he gets taken for a nice calm walk instead of a vigorous game of fetch.
6. Praise. Okay, so praise isn’t a law of physics, but it’s definitely a rule of life. I was crestfallen to realize that treat-based training was suddenly a no-go; without treats, the clicker is just noise pollution. So I praised. I praised him for going potty outside, for catching a ball, for being quiet, for coming when I called, for not pulling on the leash, for finding his toy in the snow, for learning how to use stairs, for being nice to the cat… I’m sure he still thinks “good boy” is his middle name. We did try one military-style obedience course, but I’m unconvinced that growling at your dog is the way to go. It’s much more fun to stick to praising him when he’s doing something right.
It’s been exactly a year now since the diagnosis, and management of our dog’s condition has gotten easier over time. We’re extremely lucky; in some dogs, the condition worsens. Our pup is one of the few who has somehow managed to compensate, or maybe his esophagus has improved its elasticity — but I’m not going to order another x-ray to find out.
He still eats on an angle, but we were down to three meals for some time, and lately he’s made it clear that breakfast and supper are enough. We still give him well-watered mushy kibble, but lately he’s been getting dog biscuits as well. (Only at home, though; he needed antibiotics that time he strained at the leash and snorted bicky bits up his nose.) We still try to ensure a cool-down period; after about fifteen minutes of hard play outside, he’ll start tossing little blats of water (saliva-sweat?) in which biscuit crumbs are visible, but that’s usually all we see now.
I could try treat-training him again to see how that goes, but so far I’ve been too lazy. Seeing my dog generally happy, mostly healthy, and usually pretty-well behaved is good enough for now.