Furry Hearts Blog

This is Devotion – Living with Canine Megaesophagus

Thanks to the animal loving peeps over at Petpixel – who arranged and made available a Furry Hearts pet portrait photoshoot to one of their fans – I met Jasmin, Simon, Charlie the Golden Retriever, and Maiko the Bengal cat a few weeks ago.

To be honest, I don’t think Petpixel or myself were quite prepared for the unexpectedly amazing story of this determined, selfless couple and their dog Charlie.

While you may need the tissues handy, this is ultimately a feel good story about the love and devotion we have for our pets, and the lengths people go to keep their fur baby healthy and happy.

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Christmas 2016

Close to a month before Christmas 2016 Jasmin and Charlie started noticing their nine-year-old Golden Retriever Charlie really wolfing down his food, proceeding to then to choke on it, and end up coughing it back up. All jokes aside about how Labs and Retrievers are kind of known for being a little food obsessed at the best of times, it was a marked change in his eating behavior that became increasingly more pronounced.

The day before Christmas eve when the couple woke up, Charlie appeared quite depressed and was drooling excessively. Over the course of the day his breathing became rapid and he vomited numerous times.

A trip to the after-hours vet gained a diagnosis of aspirated pneumonia, and possible Megaesophagus. The rapid breathing, drooling and depression are classic signs of pneumonia. Whereas the regurgitation (technically different from vomiting), coughing during and after eating, and gurgling throat sounds are all indicators of Megaesophagus.

Canine Megaesophagus

Megaesophagus (MegaE) is a condition where the usual muscular action of the oesophagus that pushes food down into the stomach is affected by an enlargement of the oesophagus and a lack of muscle tone to work that food down. As a result, the food typically remains sitting in the oesophagus until it is regurgitated.

When the food is regurgitated, there is a risk of foreign matter getting caught in the airway resulting in what’s known as aspirated pneumonia, which is one of the leading causes of death in canines with MegaE.

Diagnosis and Next Steps

The emergency vet ran numerous blood tests and xrays and was the one to suggest feeding Charlie in an elevated position until further testing was done to confirm the possible MegaE diagnosis. Jasmin and Simon had many discussions while at the emergency vet overnight about what their options were with the potential diagnosis, what they were able to deal with, and at what point do they say ‘enough is enough’ for Charlie’s sake. They did a ton of intensive research in those hours at the clinic and found some great support groups online which gave them hope for being able to maintain Charlie’s quality of life.

While the condition is uncommon, they found members in these groups from all over the world managing this in their own dogs and being able to maintain a great life for them for up to 9 or 10 years. These groups were, and continue to be, an incredible source of optimism and gave them the confidence that if they could prevent the onset of future aspiration pneumonia Charlie would still have a relatively normal life.

Their decision, without reservation, was always to do whatever they could within their means to make sure he was healthy and happy, and could live out his last few years in comfort. They knew that some days would be hard and they will struggle to cope – and there is always the risk he could get pneumonia again and go downhill – however, all of that is worth it. And at the end of the day, they agreed that they couldn’t live with themselves if they didn’t at least try to do all they could.

After heading home on Christmas eve with a diagnosis of MegaE the final tests done by specialist Dr Janine Stone at Perth Vet Specialists in Osborne Park. She conducted numerous blood tests, including one that had to be shipped to the USA which took four weeks to be completed, and was done so rarely they didn’t even have it set up in their computer systems. Dr Stone was incredibly supportive with the initial consult being over an hour long, and she also called Jasmin and Simon as soon as all the test results came in. By that point in time the couple had a firm plan in place on how to start managing Charlie’s condition.

The Bailey Chair

It was Jasmin’s sister Sharline who first brought the Bailey Chair to Jasmin and Simon’s attention. Due to the inability of the food to make its way to the stomach automatically with MegaE, the dog needs to remain in an elevated position for ten minutes or so after meals so gravity can ensure the delivery of their food to the stomach. The Bailey Chair supports the dog upright for this process rather than attempting to manually hold the dog upright for the duration.

They found plans for a Bailey Chair online and had the materials ready for construction within 48hrs, then within a week of that first vet appointment they were feeding Charlie from it exclusively. A neck hug that kept Charlie’s head elevated above the stomach when lying down was also immensely helpful.

During my visit to Charlie’s home for the photoshoot I got to witness him using the chair. When it’s time for a meal Jasmin or Simon will open the front of the chair which has a little table attached, like a baby’s high chair. Charlie then sits in front of the chair with his back to it before shuffling backwards until he is all the way in with his paws up so the door can be closed at which stage his paws rest on top of the table. He seems comfortable with the process and it all happens quickly and without fuss.

The afternoon ‘meal’ I was present for consisted of multiple jelly cubes, which are primarily for hydration because even drinking water is an issue with MegaE. It’s a recipe they found in one of their online support groups. The recipe makes 3 litres and lasts Charlie about two days:

Charlie’s Jelly Cubes
100g of gelatine powder
3 cups of cold water
9 cups of hot water
1 teaspoon of no salt chicken stock powder
Mix it all together until the gelatine is dissolved, then place it in the fridge to set before cutting into cubes.

Charlie’s Photoshoot

We started at Charlie’s home where I also met his Bengal cat brother Maiko. Maiko supervised the photoshoot and made sure that, despite all the extra time Charlie needs now, he also receives his fair share of adoration. After Jasmin gets home from work it’s play time for Charlie, he grabs his teddy and takes it over to mum for some rolling around and tug of war. I had myself tucked away laying down in the dining room so I could capture this from a Charlie, or maybe Maiko, point of view.

Feeding time was a whole family affair and Charlie seems to like the more involved event… who wouldn’t mind being hand fed delicious morsels of food? While Charlie sits for a time in his chair Maiko takes the opportunity to search for unoccupied hands, then once Charlie is again out of the chair another playtime ensues with mum Jasmin while Maiko gets a back scratch from dad.

From their place we headed down to the nearby beautiful Perth riverside down in Maylands to capture some time spent with Charlie’s mum and dad outdoors. Easily distracted, sitting on the jetty paying very close attention to seagulls winging past was a favourite activity. Some more exploring along the river bank before being entice to pose for the photographer wrapped up our fun outing to Bath St Park.

During the photoshoot Jasmin and Simon were closely monitoring Charlie for any signs of distress or physical effects of the MegaE and made sure they communicated with me about what he could do and would be comfortable with. They were looking for any subtle changes and listening for any noises coming from his throat that might indicate he was regurgitating. This hyper awareness of Charlie’s condition is obviously something quite automatic for them both now and they work as a tight team to make sure he is always monitored. Their love and care for him was evident in every interaction, I felt quite humbled and also privileged to be able to capture those moments.

Even though I knew about Charlie’s condition prior to the photoshoot, what struck me when I first arrived was how happy Charlie was. He seemed like any other goofy, playful doggie I photograph all the time. He was jumping around with his favourite toy, tongue lolling, bright eyes, and a big doggie smile on his face. It wasn’t until we started talking more about his condition that I began to realise what a massive impact this would be for any family and knew that I wanted to delve deeper and help raise awareness about his condition.

To Jasmin and Simon’s credit, even though Charlie does have his off days where he struggles with the condition, he is a dog that knows only that he is well loved has the most awesome parents in the world. I’m sure it has never occurred to him that he doesn’t have simply the best life ever, which is ultimately the best any of us could do for our fur babies.

Jasmin tells me that Charlie is indeed still his goofy, cheeky self that he was from before developing the condition. He still tries to sneak up onto the couch, he still likes playing with his teddies, and still plays chasey with the cat. If anything, Jasmin says that going through this experience and made them love and appreciate him even more, and treasure every extra moment they have with him in their lives.

For more information on Megaesophagus Jasmin has helpfully provided the following links:

Resource website for information about Canine Megaesophagus

Facebook – Canine Megaesophagus Support Group

Facebook – Australian Canine Megaesophagus Group

Facebook – Upright Canine Brigade

Other links mentioned in this post:

Petpixel

Perth Vet Specialists

Bailey Chair

Bath St Park

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