Reflux (GERD) in Cats-Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

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What is reflux?     Causes     Symptoms     Diagnosis     Treatment

Reflux in cats

What is reflux?

Also known as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), reflux is a condition in which gastric juices flow back from the stomach and into the esophagus. Normally the sphincter, a muscular valve at the top of the stomach, closes, which prevents acid and food refluxing back up. This results in pain and inflammation (esophagitis). Over scar tissue can build up, leading to stricture, which is a narrowing or tightening of the esophagus.

Reflux can occur in cats of all ages, although it is seen more in young cats,  there is no sex predilection. 

Causes

There are several causes of reflux in cats, some of which include:

  • Cats who have undergone anesthesia are at greater risk, particularly cats who are improperly positioned.
  • Not fasting a cat prior to anesthesia.
  • Hiatal hernia a condition which is caused by a tear in the diaphragm, this allows the stomach into the thorax.
  • Chronic vomiting.
  • Foreign body (such as a hairball) in the esophagus.
  • Cancer of the esophagus.
  • Kidney disease. The kidneys are responsible for the excretion of gastrin, a gastrointestinal hormone that stimulates the production of stomach acid to digest food. As the kidneys begin to fail, gastrin may remain in the stomach, which in turn stimulates excess amounts of stomach acid.

Symptoms 

Symptoms of reflux in cats

Diagnosis

Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination of your cat and obtain a history from you, including symptoms you may have noticed such as frequent vomiting.

Diagnostic workup:

  • Endoscopy can confirm the diagnosis. This procedure, performed under anesthetic involves inserting a thin tube with a camera and a light at the end to evaluate the esophagus and digestive tract.
  • Baseline tests which include complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis to evaluate the overall health of the cat. 

The above tests usually don’t show anything out of the ordinary although ultrasound may find a foreign body or cancer.

Treatment

Addressing the underlying cause, such as remove foreign objects or repair of a hernia.

Protecting the esophagus from further damage with the use of antacid medication to inhibit the production of stomach acid.

Low protein and low-fat diets and your veterinarian may recommend your cat be fed small meals more often. 

If the esophagus is ulcerated, a medication known as Carafate may be prescribed to coat the lining.

If severe damage has occured to the esophagus, it may be necessary to insert a stomach tube. This is only a short term (months, not years) solution, though.