The diaphragm is a layer of muscle that separates the chest cavity (which contains the lungs), from the abdominal cavity (which contains organs such as the liver, stomach, intestines etc.) This muscle helps animals to breathe.
In a small percentage of cases pets can be born with problems with their diaphragm, but the vast majority of cases that we see have had some sort of trauma such as a road traffic accident or falling from a height, resulting in tearing a hole in the diaphragm muscle. This usually affects the pet’s breathing, and sometimes some of the contents of the abdomen herniate into the chest cavity where the lungs are. This causes more difficulty breathing and can damage the trapped organs. It is an emergency situation and the only repair is by surgical intervention.
Signs of this problem can vary greatly depending on how big the tear is. Mild symptoms would be maybe your pet seems to be breathing a little quicker, shallower, or you have noticed their tummy moving more when they breath. Severe signs would be that you can clearly see your pet is unable to breathe properly. Without prompt help they may die. The problem is not just the difficulty in breathing and what stress the lungs are under, it’s also the concern of what damage may also have been done to the trapped organs and the stress on the heart.
When a pet comes into our care with either an obvious or suspected diaphragmatic hernia, we try to stabilize them as much as we can and then we take X-rays. These images help to show us what damage has been done, so we then make a plan for surgical repair. During surgery the pet cannot breathe for itself whilst the muscle is being repaired so the anaesthetist maintaining the anaesthetic will have to breathe for it. All animals having a general anaesthetic at Fivelands are also monitored on a multiparameter machine, where regular readings are taken continually of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, pulse and heart rate, blood pressure and an electrocardiograph.
If the diaphragmatic hernia occurred due to a road accident, any organs that were damaged in the accident may cause other problems, but if not, and the hole in the diaphragm is repaired, the pet will be closely monitored for a few days so that any developing complications can be dealt with promptly and thereby giving the pet the best chance of a full recovery.