You’ve been told your puppy has a hernia. Any medical problem is worrying for a new puppy owner and one that may require surgery to fix is especially daunting.

Fortunately, while some hernias may be serious, most puppies with this condition are not severely affected by it. Despite this, however, many will require remedial surgery to correct it and prevent future complications.

This article will answer some of the questions you might have about this condition and settle some of the anxieties it might cause.

What is a hernia and what causes them?

Hernias are a common congenital condition (meaning that puppies are born with them), affecting around 1 in 500 puppies. Although they can make some dogs seriously unwell, most are usually discovered at a puppy’s first checks or vaccinations without any associated or preceding signs of ill-health.

A hernia is a hole in the muscle wall of the tummy (abdomen) which allows the abdominal contents (fat, intestines and other organs) to squeeze through into a space under the skin or, less commonly, through the diaphragm into the chest. This usually causes a soft, squishy swelling under the skin, which often fluctuates in size. It may occasionally pop in and out of the tummy, disappearing for short periods of time. Hernias involving the chest don’t show obvious external changes but instead affect a puppy’s breathing, or cause chronic (ongoing) vomiting.

While some hernias result from trauma causing a tear in the muscle, most puppy hernias are congenital problems. This is where the muscle fails to develop properly. There may be a genetic element to this condition, as some breeds appear more susceptible. So it is advisable not to breed from a dog with a hernia.

Hernias typically arise in specific locations. The commonest kind in puppies are umbilical hernias, located near a puppy’s belly button. These result from the muscle failing to close over the area where the umbilical cord entered the body. Less frequently, hernias are found in the groin (inguinal) or next to the bottom (perineal). These are more common in older dogs and can be uncomfortable or cause problems with a dog’s ability to toilet properly. The rarest kind of hernias involve the diaphragm and can be more difficult to diagnose as they are less obvious from outside.

How are hernias diagnosed in puppies?

Most external hernias are fairly easy to diagnose just by their location and feel. A soft swelling under the skin in one of the characteristic hernia locations is a strong indicator but your vet will check for an underlying hole in the muscle wall to be sure. Another diagnostic test involves ‘reducing’ the hernia by squeezing the contents back into the tummy with gentle pressure. These checks are quick, pain-free and harmless.

In a small number of cases, or when an internal hernia is suspected, additional tests such as an ultrasound or X-ray may be necessary to diagnose the problem and assess its severity. These are straightforward, non-invasive procedures but may require your puppy to be sedated; your vet will be happy to discuss any questions you may have about this.

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Are there any problems hernias cause?

How serious a hernia is depends on its location, its size and its contents. While many hernias cause few problems, some can make a pup very unwell.

Most hernias, especially small ones, contain just fat which usually causes little problem apart from, possibly, some mild discomfort. The main concern with small hernias is that they get larger over time.

Bigger hernias may allow a loop of the intestines or other organs such as the liver or bladder to pop out of the tummy.  You won’t be able to see this as it’ll still be under the skin. But having intestines or organs in this location exposes them to injury. In uncomplicated cases, this may cause pain or discomfort, affect a pup’s appetite or intestinal function. In a small number of cases, it can make a pup seriously unwell. It can cause them to go off their food, be lethargic, vomit repeatedly or suffer breathing problems. These are potentially life-threatening complications. So if you notice any of these signs, or a sudden change in the size or appearance of your puppy’s hernia, you should contact your vet urgently for further advice.

What treatment do hernias require?

Some very small hernias may require no treatment at all because the muscle does eventually close as the puppy grows. These hernias leave a small blob of fat under the skin which can look a bit funny but is not usually of concern.

Most hernias, however, will need surgery to close the hole in the muscle. The contents of the hernia to their normal location. Surgery is advisable even if your puppy is currently unaffected by their hernia, to prevent more serious problems later in life.

If the hernia is small and stable, this may be done once your puppy is big and old enough, or at the same time as neutering. This is usually from six months of age. So your vet may advise regular checks of the hernia to make sure it is not causing problems in the meantime. For large hernias, or those which involve the intestines or other internal organs, surgery may be carried out at an earlier age, or as an emergency, to prevent some of the more serious complications.

What happens during hernia surgery?

Surgery to repair a hernia requires a general anaesthetic. The area around the hernia will be shaved and scrubbed with an antiseptic to reduce infections. An incision is made through the skin. The contents of the hernia are checked to make sure they are healthy. They are then gently returned to the abdomen and the hernia is closed, usually with stitches that dissolve in a few weeks. The incision is usually slightly longer than the original hernia and there may be slight redness or swelling around the area for a few days.

Umbilical hernia surgery is usually quick, straightforward and low risk. In cases where the hernia is very large, contains more than just fat, or involves the diaphragm, surgery may be more complicated. It may also carry additional risks, which your vet will discuss with you. Thankfully, these cases are much rarer.

Your puppy will be given painkillers to keep them comfortable after the operation, but antibiotics aren’t always necessary. There will usually be very little trace of surgery after a few weeks. 

Most puppies make an excellent recovery. Although to give them the best chance of healing without problems, it is important to follow your vet’s advice and rest them for 10 to 14 days after surgery.

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So, What happens next?

Hernias are relatively common in puppies. While some do cause problems, most dogs will have normal, healthy lives following treatment. Corrective surgery is usually routine and recommended in most cases to prevent future problems. 

If you ever have any concerns about your puppy’s hernia, even if they seem otherwise well, it is always best to discuss these with your vet. They will be happy to check your pup is healthy and advise on the best way to deal with this condition.

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