Swallowing Difficulties in Cats: When Eating Becomes a Challenge

Cats are known for their grace and agility, but what happens when they struggle with a simple act like swallowing? Dysphagia, the medical term for difficulty with swallowing, can be a distressing condition for both cats and their owners. In this article, we will explore the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for swallowing difficulties in cats.

Dysphagia in Cats: Understanding the Basics

Dysphagia can manifest in different forms, depending on the location of the problem within the swallowing process. It can occur in the mouth (oral dysphagia), the pharynx (pharyngeal dysphagia), or at the junction between the pharynx and the esophagus (cricopharyngeal dysphagia). Each type presents unique challenges for our feline friends.

Recognizing the Signs: Symptoms and Types

Cats with oral dysphagia may exhibit altered eating behaviors, such as tilting their heads to one side or throwing their heads backward while eating. Food packed in the cheek folds without saliva is also a common sign.

Pharyngeal dysphagia is characterized by repeated attempts to swallow, accompanied by flexing and extending of the head and neck. Excessive chewing and gagging are also observed, and food may be retained in the cheek folds, coated with saliva. A diminished gag reflex and snotty discharge from the nose may also be present.

Cricopharyngeal dysphagia is marked by successful swallowing after several attempts, followed by gagging, coughing, and regurgitation of food. Unlike pharyngeal dysphagia, the gag reflex remains intact, and affected cats often show signs of weight loss.

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The Causes: Uncovering the Culprits

Swallowing difficulties in cats can have various causes, including anatomical or mechanical factors, pain-related issues, neuromuscular conditions, and neurological disorders. Here are some common underlying causes:

  • Anatomical/mechanical causes: Pharyngeal inflammation, abscess, inflammatory growths, lymph node enlargement, cancer, foreign bodies, and jaw joint disorders are some factors that can lead to dysphagia.
  • Dysphagia caused by pain: Dental disease, mandibular trauma, mouth and tongue inflammation, and pharyngeal inflammation can cause swallowing difficulties.
  • Neuromuscular causes: Cranial nerve deficits, trigeminal nerve damage, tongue paralysis, and inflammation of the chewing muscles can contribute to dysphagia.
  • Pharyngeal weakness or paralysis causes: Conditions such as infectious polymyositis, immune-mediated polymyositis, muscular dystrophy, polyneuropathies, and myoneural junction disorders can impair swallowing function.
  • Neurological causes: Rarely, dysphagia can be a result of brain disorders or even rabies.

Seeking Answers: The Diagnosis Process

If you notice any signs of swallowing difficulties in your cat, it’s crucial to seek veterinary care promptly. Your veterinarian will start by gathering a comprehensive medical history and conducting a physical examination. Different tests will be ordered to rule out infectious diseases, kidney problems, or muscular injuries.

To determine the underlying cause, X-rays and ultrasound images of your cat’s skull, neck, and pharynx may be taken. These imaging techniques help identify abnormalities and guide tissue sampling, if necessary. In suspected cases of brain tumors, computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may be used for further evaluation.

Treatment Options: Restoring Comfort and Functionality

Treatment for dysphagia in cats primarily depends on the underlying cause. If an abnormality of the mouth is the culprit (oral dysphagia), you may need to assist your cat by placing a small ball of food at the back of its throat to facilitate swallowing. In cases of pharyngeal or cricopharyngeal dysphagia, lifting the head and neck during swallowing can help the cat eat more comfortably. In severe cases where weight loss is a concern, a stomach tube may be temporarily inserted to ensure adequate nutrition.

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If a mass or foreign body is causing the swallowing difficulties, surgical intervention may be required to remove it and restore normal function.

Living with Dysphagia: Ensuring a Good Quality of Life

During your cat’s treatment, it’s crucial to maintain a healthy body weight. If your cat is being hand-fed, offer several small meals throughout the day while ensuring it sits upright during feeding. Supporting your cat in an upright position for 10 to 15 minutes after each meal helps prevent aspiration pneumonia – a serious lung infection that can occur when food is inhaled.

Watch out for symptoms of aspiration pneumonia, including depression, fever, nasal discharge, coughing, and difficulty breathing. If any of these signs occur, seek immediate veterinary attention or visit an emergency clinic.

Remember, providing your cat with the necessary support and care during this challenging time is essential for their well-being and comfort.

Katten TrimSalon is here to help you navigate the world of cat care. Our team of experts is dedicated to ensuring your feline companion receives the best care possible. If you suspect your cat is experiencing swallowing difficulties, don’t hesitate to reach out to us for professional advice and guidance.

Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to replace professional veterinary advice. If you have any concerns about your cat’s health, please consult with a qualified veterinarian.