Hiatal Hernias in Dogs

Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

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Hiatal hernias can occur in any breed of dog but they are more prevalent in brachycephalic breeds. These hernias, which occur between the esophagus and the stomach, affect both the chest and abdominal cavities and can cause serious breathing or digestive issues. While severe cases of hiatal hernia require surgery, some dogs' discomfort from their hernias can be managed with diet and exercise to ensure the maintenance of a healthy weight.

What Is a Hiatal Hernia?

A hiatal hernia, also known as diaphragmatic hernia, is a condition in which part of the stomach bulges upward through the diaphragm, a thin muscle that separates the organs in the chest from the organs in the abdomen. The crowding of the stomach against the esophagus (the tube that food passes through after swallowing) causes reflux of food and stomach acid as well as compromised breathing due to pressure on the lungs.

Symptoms of Hiatal Hernias in Dogs

In chronic cases, the stomach may slip in and out of the opening in the diaphragm, causing transient symptoms. But, if the stomach gets stuck, symptoms may become debilitating.

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

Symptoms

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

Most dogs that have hiatal hernias don't show any signs of the problem until part of the stomach gets stuck in the chest cavity. This can cause severe pain due to constriction. Dogs may hunch their backs or cry out in pain.

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 the organ-crowding effect of a hiatal hernia as well.

Causes of Hiatal Hernias

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 have from birth and are generally attributed to genetic problems.
  • Trauma: If a dog isn't born with a hiatal hernia, then the condition may develop after a traumatic injury such as being hit by a car or falling from a high surface.

Diagnosing Hiatal Hernia in Dogs

Since most hiatal hernias are present from birth and show few symptoms, they are often discovered incidentally during an abdominal surgery or x-rays taken for another reason.

X-rays are the most commonly used method to aid a veterinarian in diagnosing a suspected hiatal hernia (based on symptoms), but ultrasound, endoscopy, and surgery may also be necessary to evaluate the extent of the condition.

Treatment of Hiatal Hernias in Dogs

If a hiatal hernia is severe and causing problems in a dog, surgery will be necessary to re-position the stomach below the diaphragm and suture the diaphragmatic hole through which the esophagus passes so that it is tight enough to keep the stomach in place.

If the hiatal hernia is not severe enough to cause distress, then a veterinarian will recommend a diet and exercise regimen to maintain a healthy weight since carrying extra fat can exacerbate the hernia.

Prognosis for Dogs with Hiatal Hernias

Most dogs with mild congenital hiatal hernias will live long, happy lives without showing symptoms or rarely experiencing gastrointestinal distress. Dogs that undergo surgery to correct hiatal hernias experience relief shortly after the procedure because they are no longer feeling constriction or experiencing reflux.

How to Prevent Hiatal Hernias

There is no way to prevent hiatal hernias beyond doing what you can to keep your dog safe from trauma.

Selective breeding of brachycephalic dog breeds, such as the Shar-Pei, that are more commonly diagnosed with hiatal hernias may help decrease the likelihood of dogs being born this condition.

Article Sources
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  1. Diaphragmatic Hernia. American College Of Veterinary Surgeons,