Q: I realised that my dog has been rolling his tongue and coughing when he eats. He has also been eating slower. I think he’s trying to clear his throat, or something may be stuck. Recently, he was diagnosed with acid reflux. Could this have anything to do with it?

A: Swallowing disorders are actually more common then we think. However, the challenge behind diagnosing the disorder is in the identification of the affected area. This is due to the myriad of associated clinical signs. We need to ask questions like: Is the pain coming from the mouth? Or is it from the back of the throat? 

From the symptoms, however, it sounds like your furkid may have gastroesophageal reflux (GERD).

GERD is a condition where there is uncontrollable gastrointestinal fluid from the stomach and/or small intestines flowing backwards into the oesophagus. One of the main causes of GERD is the young age of an animal. Their oesophageal sphincter—circular band of muscle that closes the last few centimetres of the oesophagus and prevents the backward flow of stomach content—may still be undergoing development. However, in more recent research, there seems to be another possible cause: Inappropriate fasting prior to receiving general anaesthesia.

One of the best ways to definitively diagnose GERD is via endoscopy. With endoscopy, a camera is used to directly visualise the inner lining of the oesophageal mucosa to check if there are any irregular surfaces present, or if any active bleeding is noted. It can also detect any changes to the oesophageal mucous, and if they are consistent with GERD. Any animal suffering from GERD would have classic reddening of the oesophageal lining, with accompanying oesophageal ulceration.

There other possible reasons for the clinical symptoms you described. These include foreign bodies, a hiatal hernia (where there is a hernia in the upper portion of the stomach), diseases of the oropharynx (mouth and throat region) or megaoesophagus (a condition where the muscles of the oesophagus do not function properly to push food down into the stomach).

If the diagnosis of GERD has been made, a successful long-term recovery is possible with medical therapy, dietary change, and a dedicated owner with lots of patience. Secondary complications to GERD include general discomfort, weight loss, oesophagitis (inflammation of the oesophagus), oesophageal ulcers and oesophageal strictures (where the diameter of the oesophagus narrows because of chronic inflammation and the formation of scar tissue). It is essential that the appropriate therapy be started as soon as the diagnosis has been confirmed, so do chat with your vet for a suitable course of action.