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Pet Owner Version

Diaphragmatic Hernia in Cats


Joe Hauptman

, DVM, MS, DACVS, Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Michigan State University

Reviewed/Revised Aug 2018 | Modified Oct 2022

The diaphragm is a layer of muscle that extends across the base of the chest and separates the chest from the abdomen. Contraction of the diaphragm causes the lungs to expand and inhale air during breathing. A diaphragmatic hernia Hernias Congenital abnormalities are conditions that an animal is born with; they are often referred to as “birth defects.” Some of these conditions are inherited and tend to occur within particular... read more is a condition in which a break in the diaphragm allows protrusion of abdominal organs into the chest. In cats, automobile-related trauma is a common cause of diaphragmatic hernia, although defects of the diaphragm that are present at birth (congenital) may also be a cause.

The signs of a hernia can vary. In the case of sudden trauma or injury, the cat has difficulty breathing. The degree of labored breathing may vary from barely detectable to fatal, depending on the severity of the hernia. If the stomach is trapped in the hernia, it may bloat and the animal’s condition may worsen rapidly. In milder, longterm cases, general signs such as weight loss may be more noticeable than respiratory signs. During an examination, the veterinarian may note the absence of normal lung sounds and/or the presence of digestive system sounds in the chest.

Careful physical examination by the veterinarian, including listening to and tapping the chest and abdomen, usually suggests the presence of chest disease. A definitive diagnosis is most frequently made from x‑rays, which can reveal changes in the shape of the diaphragm and the displacement of abdominal organs. Specialized x‑rays that use dyes to highlight the digestive organs are sometimes necessary to make the diagnosis.

Surgical repair of the hernia is the only treatment. Other injuries may also be present. The animal’s condition is usually stabilized before surgical correction of the hernia is performed. Animals with longterm hernias must be observed closely after surgery because life-threatening fluid accumulation can develop in the lungs.

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