Hiatal Hernias in Dogs

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Hiatal hernias can occur in any breed of dog but they are more prevalent in brachycephalic breeds. These hernias affect both the chest and abdominal cavities and can cause serious breathing or digestive issues. Thankfully not all cases of hiatal hernias require surgery but dog owners should be aware of this issue and the potential problems it can cause.

What Are Hiatal Hernias in Dogs?

Hiatal hernias are also known as diaphragmatic hernias. The diaphragm is a thin muscle that separates the the organs in the chest from the organs in the abdomen. Normal organs in the chest include the heart and lungs while the abdomen contains the stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, gallbladder and other vital organs. With a hiatal or diaphragmatic hernia, the diaphragm has an opening in it, called a hiatus, where the esophagus goes into the stomach. This opening should not be there and therefore allows organs from the abdomen to fall into the chest cavity. Sometimes organs go in and out of the opening but when the organ gets stuck problems occur.

Signs of Hiatal Hernias in Dogs

The signs of a hiatal hernia are similar to other issues affecting the digestive system of a dog.

Signs of a Hiatal Hernia in Dogs

  • Hunched back
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting with or without blood
  • Diarrhea
  • Regurgitation
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Drooling

Most dogs that have a hiatal hernia don't show any signs of the problem until an organ from the abdomen gets stuck in the chest cavity. The hiatus or opening is typically small so if part of the intestine or other organ falls into the chest cavity it may get stuck and isn't able to go back to where it belongs. This can cause severe pain due to the constriction that typically occurs when the intestine or other organ gets stuck in the opening. Dogs may hunch their back or cry out in pain when their belly hurts due to this. Vomiting and diarrhea may also occur and can even contain blood. Regurgitation of food shortly after eating, drooling or hyper salivating, and even difficulty breathing can happen as a result of a hiatal hernia as well.

Causes of Hiatal Hernias in Dogs

There seem to be only two causes of a hiatal hernia in dogs.

  • Birth defect: Also known as congenital defects, birth defects are problems or abnormalities that some dogs are simply born with. Hiatal hernias are most commonly something that a dog has since birth and they are discovered incidentally when X-rays are taken, the dog is getting abdominal surgery, or if the dog starts showing signs of one.
  • Trauma: If a dog isn't born with a hiatal hernia then it most likely develops one after some severe trauma. Being hit by a car or surviving a fall are common reasons a hiatal hernia might occur outside of being a birth defect.

Diagnosing Hiatal Hernia in Dogs

X-rays are the most commonly used method to aid a veterinarian in diagnosing a hiatal hernia but ultrasound, endoscopy, and surgery may also be necessary. A dog may or may not show symptoms of having a hiatal hernia and sometimes a diagnosis of a hiatal hernia is made alongside another issue that prompted the X-rays or other diagnostic tests.

Treatment of Hiatal Hernias in Dogs

If a hiatal hernia is severe and causing problems in a dog, surgery will be necessary to replace the organs that may have shifted through the opening and into the chest cavity and to close up the hernia. If the hiatal hernia is not as severe, medications to treat any symptoms such as regurgitation or diarrhea may be used until it is necessary to surgically correct the hernia.

How to Prevent Hiatal Hernias in Dogs

Unfortunately since dogs that have hiatal hernias are typically born with them there is no way to prevent them. Of course doing what you can to keep your dog safe from any major trauma that might cause a hiatal hernia is always recommended but these types of incidents are usually accidental. Selective breeding of brachycephalic dog breeds, such as the Shar-Pei, that are often diagnosed with hiatal hernias may help decrease the likelihood of a dog from being born with a hiatal hernia but a hereditary cause is only suspected and not proven.