Diaphragmatic Hernia in Cats-Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

What is a diaphragmatic hernia?   Symptoms   Diagnosis   Treatment

hernia in cats

About: A diaphragmatic hernia is a defect or tear in the diaphragm which allows the abdominal contents to enter the chest cavity.


  • Difficulty breathing
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Lethargy

Additional symptoms can occur if one or more of the abdominal contents enter the chest cavity.

Diagnosis: History of a recent trauma or fall and imaging to examine the internal organs and diaphragm.

Treatment: Mild cases may require rest only, severe cases will need surgical repair.


Also known simply as a hernia, a diaphragmatic hernia (DH) is a defect or tear in the diaphragm, which in turn allows the abdominal contents such as the liver or intestines to enter the chest cavity. This may either be a congenital abnormality (present at birth), or the result of trauma, such as that in a car accident or fall from a high building. When this happens, pressure is applied to the lungs, which causes difficulty breathing.

The diaphragm (also known as the ‘thoracic diaphragm‘) is a sheet of muscle which separates the chest cavity (containing the heart and lungs) from the and the abdominal cavity (containing liver, gallbladder, stomach, kidneys, small intestine, large intestine, pancreas). It contracts and expands to draw air into, and out of the lungs.


Mild or small hernias or only be associated with increased activity which is known as the chronic form.

  • Dyspnea (shortness of breath)
  • Tachypnea (increased respiration)
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Lethargy
  • Muffled heart and lung sounds

These are all common signs of a diaphragmatic hernia, however, other symptoms may present, depending on which organs have become trapped inside the chest cavity, which may include:

  • Gastrointestinal disturbances such as vomiting or diarrhea
  • Anorexia
  • Weakness
  • Coughing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Bloating due to damage to the stomach or intestines
  • Air in the chest cavity (pneumothorax)
  • Blood in the chest cavity (hemothorax)


Your veterinarian will perform a complete physical examination of your cat and obtain a medical history from you. He will suspect a diaphragmatic hernia if the cat has had a recent car accident or fall. The abdominal cavity may feel empty upon palpitation.

Diagnostic tests:

Abdominal and chest radiographs which will reveal organs in the chest and a loss of the diaphragmatic line.


If the cat has had a recent trauma then it must be stabilised before treatment can commence. This may include:

  • Treat shock
  • Manage concurrent injuries, such as broken bones or lacerations
  • Fluids to maintain hydration
  • Thoracentesis (removal of fluid from the space between the lungs and the chest cavity, known as the pleura)
  • Confinement in an oxygen tent may also be necessary

Surgical repair of the diaphragm once the cat is stable.

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