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While petting your cat, you feel a squishy lump on their belly. Could they have a hernia? Cat hernias are relatively uncommon, but they can happen. The good news is that hernias are easily treated with surgery — and if your cat was born with a hernia, it can be repaired during a spay or neuter procedure. Here's what you should know about this condition.
Cat Hernia Basics
A hernia occurs when there's an abnormal hole in the muscle wall of the abdomen or diaphragm. Fat or internal organs can protrude through the hole, causing a squishy lump noticeable from the outside. The classic cat hernia is located over the area where your cat's bellybutton would be. Usually the lump isn't painful, and it may disappear if you gently push on it. If this occurs, it's because the hernia is reducible, meaning the contents of the hernia can be pushed back into the body. Not all hernias are reducible.
A cat hernia is usually not life-threatening. However, on rare occasions, internal organs such as intestines can protrude through the opening in the muscle wall. If this cuts off an organ's blood supply, it can be life-threatening.
If the hernia only contains fat, then you probably won't see any other signs other than the lump. If the hernia contains any abdominal organs, then you may observe a large swelling that's painful or hot and your cat may vomit, lose their appetite, have bloody urine and/or have less energy.
Causes and Types of Cat Hernias
If a cat has a hernia, they're typically either born with it or it's the result of some type of injury. Physical trauma, weak abdominal walls, pregnancy and birth defects are the most common causes of hernias in cats. Extreme or repeated constipation that requires straining to defecate has also been reported to cause hernias in cats.
Hernias are classified by where they occur in the body. There are three types:
- Umbilical hernia: This is the most common type of kitten hernia. It's usually congenital (the result of a genetic disposition) and happens when the bellybutton doesn't close properly at birth. This hernia may close on its own without surgery. If it doesn't close, then it can be surgically repaired when the kitten is spayed or neutered.
- Hiatal hernia: This type of hernia happens inside the body — you can't see it from the outside. It occurs when there's a hole in the diaphragm, which allows abdominal organs to slide in and out of the chest cavity. A hiatal hernia can be congenital or can be a result of trauma, such as being hit by a car.
- Inguinal hernia: This type of hernia is located in the inguinal region, essentially the armpits of the back legs. It develops when abdominal fat or internal organs push through the inguinal canal, resulting in a squishy lump that may disappear if you push on it.
Cat Hernia Diagnosis and Treatment
If you suspect your cat has a hernia, it's important to have a veterinarian check it out as soon as possible. Most cat hernias can be diagnosed by physical exam alone, except for hiatal hernias, which can only be diagnosed with an X-ray or abdominal ultrasound. If the hernia is very hard or large, your vet may order an X-ray to determine if any abdominal organs are trapped.
Treatment depends on the hernia's size and location. If the hernia is small, your cat might not need surgery. If they have a larger hernia, then surgery is required to keep internal organs from slipping out of the hole. If internal organs are trapped in the hernia, then emergency surgery is needed right away.
Cat Hernia Surgery and Recovery
Hernia surgery consists of pushing the abdominal contents back into the abdominal cavity and sewing the hole in the abdominal or diaphragmatic muscles. Surgical mesh may also be used to strengthen weak muscles.
If your kitten has a hernia and the vet recommends surgery, this can occur when they're spayed or neutered. This will not only reduce the amount of anesthesia and hospitalization your kitten needs, but will also likely cost less than having a separate surgery.
Many times after female cats are spayed, pet parents notice swelling around the bellybutton area and mistake this swelling for a hernia. However, swelling after spay surgery is rarely due to a hernia. Instead, the swelling is caused by inflammation due to the cat being too active too soon after surgery and/or due to the skin reacting to the stitches. Always have any swelling checked, and reduce your cat's likelihood of post-surgical swelling by limiting their activity, wearing an e-collar and following your vet's instructions.
Take good care of your cat post-surgery and consider feeding them a therapeutic food that offers nutritional support for pets recovering from surgery.
Prevention and Prognosis
Besides keeping your cat indoors to avoid car accidents and lower their risk of injury, there's no way to reduce the risk of hernias.
When adequately addressed and corrected, hernias in cats have a very good prognosis, and hernias rarely return. If a kitten has a congenital hernia, it's advised to not breed that kitten as an adult because congenital hernias can be passed to the next generation.
Dr. Sarah Wooten
A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well-known international speaker in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has 10 years experience in public speaking and media work, and writes for a large number of online and print animal health publications, such as chewy.com, petMD, Vetstreet, Hill's Education Blog, and DVM360 print and online publications, Healthy Pet Magazine, and the Bark. Dr. Wooten has spoken in the veterinary education space for 5 years, and speaks on leadership, client communication, and personal development. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice. In addition to being a speaker, author, veterinarian, and co-creator of the wildly popular card game 'Vets Against Insanity', she co-owns Elevated Eateries Restaurant group in Greeley with her husband of 21 years, and together they are raising 3 slightly feral mini-humans. When it is time to play, she can be found skiing in Colorado, diving with sharks in the Caribbean, or training kenpo karate in her local dojo. Go big...or go home.
Learn more about Dr. Wooten at www.drsarahwooten.com