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Diaphragmatic Hernia in Dogs

By: Dr. Cathy Reese

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The diaphragm is the muscle that separates the abdominal organs from the heart and lungs, and when the diaphragm contracts, air enters the lungs. A defect in the diaphragm allows abdominal organs such as the liver, stomach and intestines to enter the chest cavity. These organs then sit in the space between the lungs and the body wall and can compress the lungs, making it difficult for them to expand normally. This can cause difficulty breathing. However, some animals may only exhibit vomiting or other signs related to compromise of the organ that has herniated into the chest. Some animals show no signs related to the hernia and it is only noted on physical examination, when radiographs are taken, or at surgery.

Diaphragmatic hernias may be either congenital, which are present at birth due to abnormal development of the diaphragm, or traumatic, which are a result of an injury such as being hit by a car, falling from a height or being kicked. The latter is more common.

What to Watch For

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Coughing
  • Exercise intolerance

    Other symptoms that can occur depending on what organs are trapped in the chest include:

  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty eating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Not eating at all (anorexia)
  • Abdominal distension
  • Weight loss
  • Collapse
  • Shock


    Diagnostic tests are needed to recognize a diaphragmatic hernia. Tests may include:

  • A complete medical history and physical examination

  • Radiographs (X-rays) of the chest and abdomen

  • Abdominal ultrasound to determine if abdominal organs are in the chest and to note tears in the diaphragm

  • Blood tests, especially if your pet has been hit by an automobile, had other trauma, or is obviously ill and is vomiting, collapsed, or in a state of shock


  • Emergency stabilization of your pet may be necessary if he has been hit by a car or had other trauma. This may include intravenous (IV) fluids, steroids, antibiotics or other medications.

  • Oxygen therapy may be recommended

  • Sometimes it is helpful to keep the animal's front-end elevated to allow gravity to push the abdominal organs back.

  • Once your pet is stable, often at least 24 hours after the trauma, surgical repair of the hernia is done.

    Home Care

    To reduce the likelihood of your pet developing a traumatic diaphragmatic hernia, keep your dog on a leash. The most common cause of diaphragmatic hernia and other very serious injuries is trauma caused by a motor vehicle accident.

    Contact your veterinarian immediately if your pet has been injured or if you notice any abnormal signs.

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