The diaphragm in cats works in the same way as the human diaphragm. It is a layer of abdominal muscle that contracts to make the lungs expand. Doing so helps with breathing as the lungs breathe in and out. The diaphragm of a cat is susceptible to the same pathologies and trauma, although a diaphragmatic hernia is more common in cats than in humans. Affected cats will present with symptoms that can vary in severity, but it is possible that it can cause compression of the lungs and heart that can be very dangerous.

In the next few lines, we reveal more about diaphragmatic hernia in cats. We discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatment of feline diaphragmatic hernias so you can know what to expect if your cat is affected by one.

What is a diaphragmatic hernia in cats?

At its most basic description, a diaphragmatic hernia occurs when there is an abnormal hole or opening through which the contents of the cat’s abdomen escape. These contents are usually in the form of fatty tissue, but can include abdominal organs such as the liver, spleen, stomach or intestine. The amount of leakage depends on the size of the hernia.

The diaphragm is an important muscle for breathing. It causes negative pressure when it contracts, reducing the curvature of the diaphragm and returning to the center. This increases the volume of the chest cavity and allows the lungs to expand for continued breathing. The diaphragm is located between the thoracic and abdominal cavities, acting as a protector between the two and preventing the abdominal organs from penetrating the thoracic cavity.

Types of diaphragmatic hernia in cats

Diaphragmatic hernias in cats can be of two main types:

  • Traumatic Diaphragmatic Hernia – After a hit, fall, or fight, internal damage can occur, including rupture of the diaphragm. The result can be a hernia and an opening between the chest and abdominal cavities.
  • Congenital peritoneum-pericardial diaphragmatic hernia: there is an extensive opening between the pericardial cavity (layer that surrounds the heart) and the peritoneum (layer that covers the abdominal viscera). It is usually of congenital origin. This means that cats are born with this hernia, but many of them do not have any symptoms. In symptomatic cases, liver and gallbladder abnormalities are usually seen.

Causes of diaphragmatic hernia in cats

Generally, diaphragmatic hernias in small kittens are usually of congenital origin, those that appear after birth are of traumatic origin. In cats, they are most often caused by an accident, such as a fall from a great height, being in a vehicular collision, or hitting an object at high speed.

It should be noted that the diaphragm in young cats is a fine structure and still underdeveloped. This means that it is more frequent and easier to break than adults. It is also possible that the cat has a congenital diaphragmatic hernia that is small and asymptomatic, but widens due to trauma later in life.

Symptoms of diaphragmatic hernia in cats

Cats with a diaphragmatic hernia will generally exhibit clinical respiratory signs, ranging from mild respiratory distress to significant respiratory dysfunction. The latter will be accompanied by severe dyspnea (shortness of breath) and injuries. These can cause chest wall dysfunction, presence of air, fluid, or viscera in the pleural space, pulmonary edema, cardiovascular dysfunction, and shock.

Cats often have rib breathing (lung breathing), which causes the chest to expand more than usual and may show a distended belly. Just over 10% of cats have cardiac arrhythmias. Other clinical signs include:

  • Chest gurgling noises.
  • Reduced cardiorespiratory sound.
  • Vomiting
  • Anorexy.
  • Regurgitation.
  • Dysphagia.
  • Jaundice.

Diaphragmatic hernia feline diagnosis

Diagnosis is made using a chest radiograph to visualize herniated organs in the chest cavity and assess the severity of the hernia. Ultrasound will be used in some cases to differentiate the abdominal organs and auscultation of the chest to evaluate the sounds produced.

Treatment of diaphragmatic hernia in cats

Treatment of congenital diaphragmatic hernias depends on whether they cause symptoms. However, if they do require treatment, the only option for both these and traumatic diaphragmatic hernias is reconstructive surgery of the diaphragm.

If you think that your cat may be suffering from some type of diaphragmatic hernia, do not hesitate to contact us so that we can review the health of your pet.