We used to believe that laryngeal paralysis was a standalone condition. Recent research shows that it’s a bit more complicated. Laryngeal paralysis is a disease of the nerves (poly-neuropathy) that can sometimes affect other body parts besides the larynx (voice box).
What is GOLPP?
To better describe this complicated disease, it was named Geriatric Onset Laryngeal Paralysis Polyneuropathy (GOLPP in short). GOLPP slowly gets worse over time. It affects dogs developing signs of upper airway obstruction.
It has been observed in older or geriatric dogs, particularly in Labrador retrievers and other large breed dogs. But the condition has also been diagnosed in other purebreds and mixed breeds. We now understand that there are 3 main parts to this disease.
1st condition: laryngeal paralysis
Affected dogs are most often brought into the hospital because of signs associated with laryngeal paralysis, because it’s the most obvious one and can be life-threatening. It causes dogs to have difficulty breathing, to the point that they can suffocate.
2nd condition: mega-esophagus
Further questioning may reveal “spitting” up food, sometimes mistaken as vomiting.
Because there is no effort involved, the condition is called regurgitation. It is due to a malfunction of the esophagus, which is the tube between the mouth and the stomach. It becomes extremely distended (mega-esophagus) and food simply piles up inside instead of going down into the stomach. When the amount in the esophagus is too much, it’s expelled effortlessly via regurgitation.
This increases the risk of aspiration pneumonia since these dogs have trouble protecting their airways and lungs.
In addition, some dogs develop weakness in their back legs. Sadly, it is often inaccurately blamed on arthritis or old age.
In reality, it really has to do with the same nerve condition. The legs are not well coordinated, and the muscles get weaker over time.
What is the treatment of GOLPP?
There is no cure for GOLPP, but there are ways to help each one of its components.
The gold standard to treat laryngeal paralysis is surgery (called a tie back). In good hands, i.e. typically those of an experienced board-certified surgeon, it provides good results as it allows the patient to breathe and function. Despite possible complications, surgery dramatically increases both lifespan and quality of life.
- There is no treatment for megaesophagus per se. The dog needs to be fed soft to liquid food, then remain upright for 15 minutes after each meal.
- Dogs with weak back legs benefit from slow leash walks and physical therapy to strengthen the muscles.
What should you do if your dog has GOLPP?
As a surgeon who deals with laryngeal paralysis frequently, this is what I tell my clients. Other surgeons may disagree, so please understand this is my opinion based on years of experience.
- The best way to help a dog with laryngeal paralysis is surgery.
- If the dog has megaesophagus at the time of the diagnosis, it still may not preclude performing surgery. It definitely increases the risk of aspiration pneumonia, but several of my most dedicated clients have helped their dogs successfully.
- If the dog ends up with a weak backend, at least this part is not life-threatening in the short term. With exercise and physical therapy, we can still help these dogs.
Ultimately, by putting together the right treatment plan and the right team, which includes a very loving and dedicated pet owner, affected dogs can maintain a good quality of life.