Before it happened to my own dog, I had no idea how to recognize the symptoms of acid reflux in dogs — or that dogs could even get it.
What I could see was that my three-year-old boxer 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. Sometimes it’s also called gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Perhaps it’s happening to your dog and you haven’t known what it is. When you’re dealing with acid reflux in dogs symptoms can be many and varied.
Symptoms of GERD in dogs
We experienced about a dozen different symptoms, usually all of them at once. It’s truly miserable. For us, these signs of acid reflux in dogs included:
- air licking
- jaw snapping
- drooling (a sign of nausea in dogs)
- licking own fur or fabric of bed/couch
- trying to eat specks of dust, leaves or anything pup can find (likely an effort to soothe the burning in the throat)
- gulping/loud swallowing
- dry retching
- harsh coughing
- vomiting, both food and clear fluid
- stomach/throat gurgling
- neck stretching
How long an attack lasts
The onset of an attack would be sudden. 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 precipitated a full-blown attack only once. Once it happened after no food at all. Every other time it was after a meat meal. Larger meat meals and fattier meats seemed more likely to provoke an episode. Though we’re told enzymes in food are not denatured by freezing, I sometimes thought I was seeing a correlation between bouts of acid reflux and the feeding of meat that had been frozen, as opposed to meat that was fresh and had never been frozen. I think this is probably an outlying factor, but just a thought in case it gels with your situation.
Treating acid reflux in dogs
Once you’ve seen acid reflux, you won’t miss it again. But how to treat acid reflux in dogs is a tough question.
Formal diagnosis typically involves a scope to view the esophageal lining and rule out a hiatal hernia. Sometimes vets also recommend other procedures including an x-ray called an esophagram which is done in conjunction with a barium swallow. It checks for ulcers and any narrowing of the esophagus.
Acid reflux treatment for dogs usually involves drugs to reduce stomach acid (we’ll tackle the problems with this approach later) and modifying the diet. Conventional vets typically prescribe a dose of pepcid for dogs, given either when attacks occur or daily as a preventative.
“Prescription” dog food
Vets often recommend prescription food for dogs. This food uses hydrolyzed or novel proteins. Vets suggest it because they believe acid reflux can be caused by intolerances to particular animal proteins. Some dogs find a degree of 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 be triggering. There’s a lot of experimentation and each dog seems to be different.
When you have acid reflux in dogs diet is crucial.
But I do not believe prescription diets are the answer — and not just because of the large number of prescription diet dog food recall notices in recent times. Unfortunately, no commercially manufactured food is optimal for a dog’s health. Why? For the same reasons (and many more) that we know highly processed food should not form the basis of a healthy human diet. See below for how we’ve used a natural diet based around raw meaty bones — but also including fasting — to support the gut’s healing.
Acid reflux medicine for dogs
Famotidine / Pepcid
I filled a prescription from my vet for famotidine but 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.)
NOTE famotidine other names include pepcid.
I have seen many owners give medication for acid reflux in dogs. Often it’s Pepcid or other acid-reducing drugs including omeprazole for dogs (prilosec for dogs) which is a proton pump inhibitor. Prolonged use of these drugs carries considerable health risks.
Metoclopramide for dogs is commonly prescribed to increase motility of the gastrointestinal tract and treat nausea. 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 most of the attention has been on the condition in humans, not dogs. 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 anaesthesia.
What causes acid reflux in dogs is understood to be similar to what causes it in humans. It happens when gastrointestinal fluids like bile, pepsin or stomach acid backflow into the oesophagus.
And here’s where we get to the problem with drugs that reduce stomach acid…
Too much stomach acid? Or too little?
Too much stomach acid in dogs is only one of the causes of acid reflux.
The opposite situation — too little stomach acid, or hypochlorhydria — produces the same symptoms. 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, the join between the food pipe and the stomach. Acid reflux can also be caused by anesthesia, chronic vomiting, a foreign body in the esophagus or even cancer of the esophagus.
Unresolved, the condition 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
Our acid reflux began after 11 months on high-dose steroids for meningitis (which is a whole other story!) During that time, we had also taken a cocktail of antibiotics to treat infections resulting from the steroid’s suppression of the immune system. It was a hellish year.
Incidentally, I know of another boxer treated for meningitis that 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.
Acid reflux as detox?
Working in the realm of 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 prednisone and antibiotics are known to be rough on the gut.
Detox is known to produce irritation of 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 had used an antibacterial chlorhexidine mouthwash for dogs, and also an antiseptic mouth gel. I was trying to prevent infection of open mouth sores which 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 remedies for acid reflux in dogs
As things progressed, we tried a host of remedies anecdotally recommended for acid reflux in dogs, all of which worked to a degree in moderating symptoms, but were not curative:
- yoghurt and grated apple before bed (Some recommend pumpkin for acid reflux in dogs but I found it seemed to soothe the lower GI tract rather than the upper.)
- slippery elm bark powder (this is a common acid reflux in dogs home remedy)
- elevating his head compared to his torso (I sat 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.)
- for a while syringing water into his mouth at the first sign of an attack seemed to work
Our treatment for acid reflux in dogs
Here’s what I’ve found is the best treatment for acid reflux in dogs:
- Removal of cause i.e. all drugs
- Fast days (and/or fruit days) so you’re not feeding meat every day
- A fresh, natural raw food diet with fat trimmed
Shiva’s bouts are becoming less frequent. Acid reflux in dogs at night is a common occurrence and we had a rough night this past week, but before that it had been two months since his most recent attack. The symptoms seem to resolve almost completely and then briefly return, with decreasing frequency. It’s a pattern which I’m interpreting, from within a detox framework, as resurgence of symptoms on the way to deep and permanent healing.
The principle behind fasting
Owners often ask what food is best for acid reflux in dogs. The answer is that no matter what you feed, from a healing perspective less food is better.
Fasting dogs is a great idea. It’s useful both to maintain health and as a first course of action treatment when you have a sick dog. But it can be outside the comfort zone of many owners. It’s useful to remember that 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. The logic is that when the body is not occupied digesting meat, energy can instead be directed towards processes of cellular repair and regeneration. Before adding interventions, try a lighter touch. Try removing. Fasting should be the first port of call for digestive problems in dogs, including digestive issues in older dogs.
It’s a balancing act, because you also want your dog to maintain a healthy weight.
Gut cells replaced every week
Healing goes on all the time, naturally. 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 fat, in meat requires the body to do a lot of work 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, passing through the stomach much faster and providing ‘free’ calories. By that I mean calories that the body expends little energy to receive.
Good foods for acid reflux in dogs: Fruit
Dogs are ‘facultative’ carnivores, meaning they can sustain themselves on secondary foods (fruit) when their preferred prey is not available. Great fruits for dogs include bananas and watermelon. I’ve also fed mangoes and fresh, pitted dates which are more nutrient-dense.
Fasting, or feeding fruit, accelerates detoxification processes in the body. If the reflux has arisen as part of detox, fasting or feeding fruit should speed up the exodus of toxins and 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 administering 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.
How to stop acid reflux in dogs: Other things you can try
Digestive issues in dogs are shockingly common, mostly due to improper feeding ie kibble. So, it goes without saying that the first step towards healing acid reflux (and virtually all other health problems) is to feed a biologically appropriate raw diet. Let’s assume you’re already doing that.
Here’s some tweaks you can make:
1. Several smaller meals per day instead of one large meal
A smaller meal is less work for the gut. This is a trade-off, because feeding more frequently means less digestive rest between meals, so slower healing. Find a balance. Ideally, as the acid reflux heals and your dog can handle larger meals without them triggering symptoms, you can move towards feeding at one end of the day only.
2. Leaner cuts of meat
Lower fat meals 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, it does mean cutting a lot of fat off and not feeding them too often.
Fresh whole sardines can be an easier to digest option for edible bone while your dog’s digestion is compromised. However, sardines are also an oily fish, so if this aggravates your dog’s reflux, avoid.
3. Digestive enzymes
These have seemed to help us to break the cycle when acid reflux attacks become more frequent. However we have also had an acid reflux attack after a meal that used enzymes, so they’re also not a cure. This is a reputable brand. Try them with meat meals for 2 weeks, then see how your dog does without. If the acid reflux returns, try another 2 weeks on before trying to come off again. The point is, you don’t want your dog’s system to become reliant on enzymes long term. So keep cycling on and off until your dog’s gut has hopefully healed to the point where he no longer needs them.
4. Warm the meat
In the wild dogs are eating the warm meat of a freshly killed animal.
Our raw meat comes from the fridge or freezer.
It’s said the body has to warm food before the process of digestion can begin. By this logic, avoiding chilled food makes sense in dogs with acid reflux. Anything that can contribute to efficient digestion makes sense to me.
I let Shiva’s meat come to room temperature. In winter I actually cut it on a warmed plate (either straight from the dishwasher or heated by pouring boiling water over it). This way it gently heats up a little before I serve it to him.
Be careful not to overdo this. You don’t want to be cooking the meat in any way.
5. Avoid stress
Stress can exacerbate symptoms of health conditions in dogs. Boxers in particular can be “sensitive”. All dogs are attuned to our emotions.
If I notice any signs of acid reflux in Shiva, I can tend to tense up with worry about an impending attack. Instead, I make a point of keeping relaxed. I might yawn dramatically or say a few things in a breezy or bored tone. Just to send relaxed cues to him in case it can head off any stress-related triggers.
Sometimes there’s no stopping the acid reflux. No matter what you do it seems to need to run its course. But, for milder instances, relaxation and distraction seems to help settle things.
Use the brains trust: connect with other dog owners
Seek out owners’ groups for dogs with acid reflux and learn what is and isn’t working for others.
Learn about dog nutrition and find out how other owners have healed serious health conditions through proper feeding.
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 if you remove the cause and support the body’s natural regenerative processes by what, and how, you feed.