Pet Tip: Difficult Prehension and Swallowing

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Dysfunction of the nerves of the mouth and throat can present with difficulty prehending (act of taking food or water into the mouth), swallowing (act of moving the food bolus or water from the mouth to the pharynx and into the swallow tube, esophagus and transport to the stomach). These cranial neuropathies can present a challenge to ensuring your pet maintains normal hydration and nourishment. Complications can be life threatening, if not diagnosed and treated properly.

How do I know if my pet is having trouble prehending and swallowing?

  • If your pet takes significantly longer to eat or drink than they used to.
  • If your pet spends long periods of time at the water bowl, without water disappearing and with the water becoming slimy and filled with food particles.
  • If you notice your pet having difficulty picking up food or dropping food while trying to eat.
  • A decrease or lack of appetite.
  • When the mouth remains open, with the jaw dropped down.
  • Disability or inability to move the tongue appropriately.
  • Excessive drooling.
  • These symptoms may also be related to problems other than difficulty swallowing. Your family veterinarian will help you determine the cause of these symptoms.

My dog’s mouth hangs open and he/she has trouble keeping food and water in the mouth. What can I do to help my dog eat and drink?

  • Using a 1/4-inch width rubber band, placed over the snout and under the jaw, about midway between the tip of the nose and the eyes, will help keep the jaw closed and allow suction to develop in the caudal oral cavity, the pharynx and provide a spring action to the jaw, assisting with chewing. The rubber band should be large enough to hold the jaw close together, not shut, and wide enough that it will not cause a pressure sore on the top or bottom of the jaw.
  • The rubber band should never be left on for longer than 5 minutes at a time, just long enough for your pet to eat and drink. The rubber band should be used as a temporary aid. Trouble eating and/or drinking can become a life threatening problem if not addressed.
  • Elevate food and water bowls, so your pet does not have to bend down to eat and drink. This will add gravity as an aid to food and water intake to the back of the tongue and pharynx more easily.
  • If your pet is showing similar signs, please seek help from your family veterinarian, to determine the cause and a possible solution.
My dog stands at the water bowl for a long period of time, but doesn’t seem to actually drink. What can I do to help my pet?
  • Fill a large water bowl and resist the temptation to change the water, no matter how unsightly it may appear to you. As your pet drools in the water, the protein from the saliva makes the water viscous, or slimy, making it easier for your pet’s tongue to lap up the water and create negative suction in the pharynx.
  • Elevate the water bowl so the head is elevated above the bottom of your dog’s belly. This will add gravity as an aid to water flowing downhill to the stomach.
  • Using a 1/4-inch rubber band will help keep the jaw closed to allow suction to develop in the caudal oral cavity, the pharynx and assist with swallowing. The rubber band should be large enough to hold the jaws close together, not shut; and wide enough that it will not cause a pressure sore on the top or bottom of the jaw.
  • The rubber band should only be left in place while your pet drinks.
  • If your pet is having a problem similar to this, seek help from your family veterinarian. Defining the cause for the problem will allow for measures of correction. Trouble eating and/or drinking can become a life threatening problem if not addressed.
What else can I do while my pet recovers normal prehension and swallowing function?
  • Switch to a soft or canned food. Because your pet has difficulty closing and keeping the lower jaw closed, dry kernels cannot be broken or crushed, and will fall out of the mouth more readily than canned food. Canned foods stick to you pet’s tongue, making it easier to move the food bolus to the back of the mouth and pharynx for swallowing.
  • Canned food can be formed into small balls. Place the food balls onto the top of the back of the tongue. Gently shut the jaw and hold closed, as your pet swallows. If your pet gags or retches with this maneuver, make the food balls smaller.
  • Moisten the dry kernels in water prior to feeding. The kernels will expand and become sticky, allowing your pet to keep food in the mouth longer, while attempting to swallow. If you choose to use dry food, remember it requires greater jaw action to chew and maintain a closed mouth and more negative pressure to develop in the pharynx.

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