Can A Hernia Kill A Dog?

Photo by Jon Dawson on Flickr

When you discover a soft squishy mass bulging out of a dog’s abdomen, it’s natural to be worried.

However, hernias are pretty common in dogs, including puppies and, although they can be life-threatening, they are entirely treatable.

Some types of hernias can even repair themselves, but you cannot count on that. In this article we’ll have a look at the most common types of hernias in dogs, what causes them and how they can be resolved.

Most importantly, we’ll talk about the symptoms indicating that the problem is getting worse and requires quick medical intervention. Real quick!

What are the most common types of hernias in dogs?

Hernias appear when there’s a tear in the abdominal muscles and this allows an internal organ or some fatty tissue to push through. 

There are five types of hernias that affect dogs, some of them producing only mild symptoms, while others are more dangerous and require immediate medical attention.

One thing you need to know is that not all hernias can be seen with the naked eye. Sometimes a hernia is only detected using X-rays, most often when a worried pet parent takes the dog to the vet to see what’s wrong with him.

Let’s have a look at each type of hernia.

Umbilical hernias

This type of hernia is most common in puppies and, as the name indicates, it develops in the area where the umbilical cord used to be.

You’ll notice a soft bulging mass near the belly button, which might not cause your pup any discomfort.

In this area it’s usually a portion of the intestines pushing through the hole in the abdominal wall, but it might also be a lump of fatty tissue.

Diaphragmatic hernias

This refers to a hole in the diaphragm muscle which allows the liver or part of the stomach to push into the chest cavity, squeezing the lungs.

The owner might be alerted there’s something wrong with their pet when he develops breathing problems or coughing.

This type of hernia usually requires X-rays, in order for the doctor to make a diagnostic.

Hiatal hernias

This type of hernia is quite similar with the diaphragmatic one, as it involves the same muscle.

In hiatal hernia, the stomach pushes against a weakness or a tear in the hiatus of the diaphragm, which is the small opening that allows the esophagus to pass from the chest area through the muscle to connect with the stomach.

In most cases, a hiatal hernia is caused by a trauma, like a kick to the dog’s chest.

On the other hand, Bulldogs and other brachycephalic breeds are more prone to hiatal hernias, and in their case we’re talking about a congenital condition.

Perineal hernia

Perineal hernia appears when there’s a tear in the pelvic muscle.

This hole allows some of the abdominal content to push through to the area near the dog’s anus. This type of hernia is most common in intact male dogs over the age of 5.

It seems that some breeds, such as Welsh Corgis, Boston Terriers, Boxers and Collies, are more susceptible to develop perineal hernia.

If you notice that your dog strains to poop even after you change his diet, you might want to have him examined for a possible hernia.

Inguinal hernias

Inguinal hernia appears in the groin area and you’ll probably notice a bulge on the inner wall of the rear leg, very close to the point where it connects with the body.

In many cases, it’s just portions of the intestines pushing against the tear, but if the hole becomes large enough, the bladder of the uterus might become herniated.

Inguinal hernia is more common in older female dogs, especially during pregnancy.

If this is the case with your dog, go see a vet as soon as possible.

What are the main causes of hernias in dogs?

The bad news is that most types of hernias have genetic causes, so there’s basically nothing you can do to prevent them. Diaphragmatic and hiatal hernias can be caused by a trauma or injury, like when the animal is hit by the car, but these two can also be congenital.

If a dog has some type of congenital hernia, owners are often advised to spay or neuter the animal so they won’t pass this condition to the next generation.

Which hernias are dangerous and can kill?

Hernias can also be classified based on their severity.

Reducible hernia refers to a bulge that flattens when the dog lies down or when you push it gently back into the abdomen.

In this case, the protrusion is just a bit of abdomen lining or fatty tissue.

This type of hernia may or may not cause discomfort and it is not a medical emergency.

However, left untreated the tear can grow wider allowing part of an organ or an intestinal loop to slip through.

Non-reducible hernia refers to a bulge that cannot be pushed back and you have to assume that whatever slipped through the tear is trapped there.

This type of hernia is very painful so you shouldn’t try to push it back when he shows signs of distress.

Non-reducible hernias are very dangerous as the intestinal loop or whatever part of an organ is bulging will become tightly trapped, becoming what doctors call a strangulated hernia.

If this happens, blood supply to the affected organ might be cut off, resulting in tissue death and gangrene. This requires immediate surgery as this is a life-threatening situation.

How much does it cost to fix a hernia?

If your dog has a minor reducible hernia, this can be easily fixed when you take your pet in for spaying or neutering.

The vet can deal with both issues at the same time, so this eliminates the costs of anaesthesia for a second procedure.

This is also good for your dog as he won’t have to go through all the stress twice.

During hernia surgery, the doctor will clean any scar tissue, suture the hole and sometimes put in a mesh to strengthen the area and prevent other tears.

Minor hernia repair costs anywhere between $150-400.

On the other hand, if you go in for an emergency procedure, like a strangulated hernia, you’ll have to pay around $500, and that’s if you’re lucky.

If things are very bad, the whole thing might cost a few thousands of dollars.

It’s not just that the surgery might be more complicated, but your pet might also need extensive lab work, or to stay in the hospital overnight to receive IV fluids and antibiotics. 

Can some hernias be treated at home?

Conventional wisdom says that if the dog has a small hernia, less than 1 cm (1/4in) you can give it a little time to see if it repairs itself.

If it’s a puppy, there’s a good chance the tear in the abdominal wall will close up on its own as the dog grows older.

However, you’ll have to monitor your dog closely. You can also check to see if it’s a reducible hernia.

Push the bulge back in gently.

If your dog shows any sign of pain, just leave the hernia alone and see a vet right away.

In some cases, the vet might also tell you that surgery isn’t necessary right away. This is the case for minor umbilical or inguinal hernias.

In a male dog, a small inguinal hernia can heal on its own. However, in females, especially pregnant ones, the tear should be repaired before it grows any larger.

A minor hernia might not cause any discomfort, but you should  look out for symptoms indicating a serious problem, such as:

  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Cramping
  • Fever
  • Leg numbness
  • Lethargy

When you notice any of these symptoms, you should see a vet immediately. If the affected tissue starts to break down, bacterial toxins can spread rapidly in your dog’s body. This can kill a dog in 24 – 48 hours.

Should you buy a puppy that has an umbilical hernia?

That depends on how much you want that particular puppy. An umbilical hernia is easily fixed and there’s a very small chance it will reoccur. If the puppy has a small umbilical hernia that doesn’t appear to bother him, you should just wait and see what happens. Such hernias can close spontaneously before the puppy gets 3 or 4 months old. If it doesn’t, the vet will take care of it when you take him in for neutering, and the cost won’t be significantly higher. Complications are extremely rare following this type of surgery, so the puppy should be back on its feet in a few days. 

Closing Thoughts

Irrespective of the type of hernia your dog has, this is something you cannot ignore. If there’s only a minor reducible hernia, it’s not a medical emergency. In a young dog, such a hernia can clear on its own. However, you should see a vet just to be sure it’s safe to wait. 

Umbilical hernias have a good chance of going away on their own, or they can be fixed once your puppy goes to the vet for neutering or spaying.

On the other hand, untreated hernias can become strangulated and the dog might develop gangrene, and this can be lethal.