By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
As part of every puppy physical exam, I feel the dog’s belly to check for all sorts of things, like pain, enlarged organs and masses. I run my fingers down the center near their belly button feeling for the telltale blob of an umbilical hernia and near the groin checking for inguinal lumps and we find them quite a bit.
Hernias are not uncommon in puppies, and occur in a variety of ways. The good news is most are easily treatable and often caught early. Here’s what you need to know:
What is a Hernia?
A hernia occurs when abdominal organs or fatty tissue protrude through a weak spot in the muscle or connective tissue. The severity of the hernia depends on the size of the defect in the abdominal wall. In its most benign form, a small amount of abdominal fat may intermittently protrude from the hole and be easily placed back through with a little pressure. In its most severe form, intestines or other abdominal organs may pass through the the hole, compressing blood supply and essentially strangling the organ. In these worst-case scenarios hernias can become life threatening in a short period of time. Amazingly, even large hernias can often be successfully treated if the diagnosis is made before the herniated organ is compromised.
What are the Different Types of Hernias Seen in Puppies?
In puppies, the most commonly seen hernias are:
- Umbilical: the region where the umbilicus attached the fetus to the mother’s placenta in utero, which we all know as the belly button, should close shortly after birth. In some cases the closure is incomplete, leaving a hole in the abdomen through which contents can herniate.
- Inguinal: the inguinal canal is an opening in the area of the groin through which the testicles descend. Both males and females have an inguinal canal and can suffer from inguinal hernias.
- Diaphragmatic: the diaphragm is the large sheet of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. While trauma and congenital defects can cause defects at any point along the diaphragm, there are two specific subtypes of diaphragmatic hernia which are known to occur as congenital defects in puppies:
- Hiatal: the hiatus is an opening in the diaphragm where the esophagus, which carries food from the mouth to the stomach, passes from the chest to the abdomen. If the opening is larger than it should be, the stomach can start to bulge through into the chest cavity.
- Peritoneopericardial: this mouthful of a word refers to an opening between the peritoneum (a membrane lining the abdominal cavity) and the pericardium (the sac that surrounds the heart). This results from an embryologic problem during development, and is the most common form of congenital pericardial defect in the dog.
What Causes Hernias in Dogs?
Hernias can be congenital (meaning the puppy was born with the condition) or acquired through trauma, disease or aging. Congenital hernias are the most common cause noted in young dogs. They may be the result of a spontaneous problem during development, or a genetic defect passed on from one of the parents.
Trauma is the other common cause of hernias in puppies. Blunt force trauma such as being hit by a car or any sort of blow to the body wall can cause a tear in either the abdominal wall or the diaphragm, allowing abdominal organs to herniate.
What are the Signs of a Hernia in Puppies?
Signs of a hernia vary depending on the location and severity of the hernia. In many cases, with a small uncomplicated hernia consisting only of a small amount of abdominal fat, the owner may not even notice anything or just feel a small squishy blob in the region of the belly button or groin. As the hernia becomes larger and more vital organs are compromised, signs may be as follows:
- Lack of appetite
- Large mass in the abdomen or groin
- Difficulty urinating
- Dyspnea (breathing difficulty)
- Irregular heartbeat
How are Hernias Diagnosed?
Umbilical and inguinal hernias can often be diagnosed by palpation during a physical exam, though imaging may be needed to confirm whether the content of the hernia include intestines or other abdominal organs.
For hernias that open into the chest cavity, imaging studies such as x-rays and ultrasound are needed to determine what organs are displaced and to what extent.
Can Hernias be Treated?
As a hernia is essentially a hole in the body wall that shouldn’t be there, surgery is indicated to replace the contents of the abdomen and repair the defect so the organs remain where they are supposed to be. The success of the repair depends on the size of the defect, whether or not the organs sustained damage when they were herniated, and the overall health of the pet.
In the cases of small umbilical hernias where only fat is protruding, your veterinarian may recommend repairing the hernia at the time of spay or neuter. If the hernia is large or contains abdominal organs, surgery should take place as soon as possible to avoid organ damage or even death. Your veterinarian can assess your pet if you suspect he or she is suffering from a hernia and determine the best course of action.
Are Hernias Preventable?
In many cases of congenital hernias, it’s impossible to predict when and where they will occur, though some breeds are considered predisposed to various types of hernias. For example, while Shar-pei and English bulldogs are more likely to have hiatal hernias, Weimaraners are overrepresented in cases of peritoneopericardial hernias.
Pets who have any form of congenital hernia should not be bred as they may pass the defect onto their offspring.
Although hernias can be distressing and sometimes even life-threatening, the majority of pets with a hernia who receive prompt diagnosis are successfully treated and go on to live long and happy lives. If you find an unexpected swelling or mass on your pet, even if it doesn’t seem to be bothering them at the moment, don’t wait to get it assessed. Early diagnosis is the key to excellent outcomes.