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Diagram of a hernial sac (Copyright Elspeth Milne 2007)

A hernia is defined as the displacement of an organ through a normal aperture (a true hernia) or pathological aperture (false hernia or rupture). The mobile organs of the abdomen are most commonly displaced through apertures in the abdominal wall, diaphragm, inguinal canal or femoral canal.

In a true abdominal hernia, the displaced organs are contained within a hernial sac which consists of the parietal peritoneum together with any overlying soft tissues. In an external hernia, the skin forms the outermost layer and the hernial sac and its contents are palpable. Internal hernias involve an aperture within the abdominal cavity. Since the parietal peritoneum is torn when ruptures occur, these do not have defined hernial sacs.

Hernias may be congenital or acquired. Congenital hernias usually result from a failure of physiological apertures (such as the umbilical canal) to close fully during embryonic or neonatal development whereas acquired hernias may be related to trauma, wounds or to physiological weakening of tissues with age, pregnancy or chronic straining.


The sequelae of a hernia depend on whether the hernia is reducible and if the herniated organs are incarcerated or strangulated.

Reducible hernia

The contents of the hernial sac can be moved back to their original position. These hernias tend not to cause clinical disease.


If the hernial ring narrows or if the displaced organs expand, the contents of the hernial sac may be trapped or 'incarcerated'. These structures cannot be moved back to their original position and surgical intervention is usually required to increase the size of the hernial ring. Incarcerated hernias also carry a greater risk of strangulation.


The contents of the hernial sac are trapped and their blood supply is impaired. Initially, only venous drainage is reduced leading to oedema and congestion but infarction may occur if the arterial blood supply is also affected. Strangulated loops of small intestine are unable to maintain an effective barrier against gastro-intestinal bacteria and bacterial endotoxin, leading to peritonitis, sepsis and endotoxic shock. The intestine may also rupture causing acute septic peritonitis.

Types of hernia

  • Umbilical hernias are congenital and result from a failure of closure of the foetal umbilical canal. They occur in all of the major domestic species.
  • Diaphragmatic hernias may be congenital or, much more commonly, diaphragmatic ruptures may occur following blunt abdominal trauma in small animals. Congenital diaphragmatic hernias are an unusual cause of small intestinal incarceration and strangulation in horses, manifesting as severe colic. If the septum transversum (the embryonic structure that forms the diaphragm) fails to develop fully, congenital Peritoneal-Pericardial-Diaphragmatic hernias (PPDH) or Pleuroperitoneal hernias may occur.
  • Inguinal/scrotal hernias may be congenital or acquired. Congenital hernias are rare and usually occur in young male dogs with late testicular descent. It is suggested that this process holds the inguinal canal open for longer than normal, allowing abdominal organs to displace into them. Acquired hernias occur in obese animals (in which the canal is held open by the local accumulation of fat) and in older entire bitches (in which the gravid uterus may be herniated). Inguinal hernias also occur in stallions after castration and may cause severe colic.
  • Perineal hernias are true hernias where abdominal organs move into space created by the weakening or rupture of muscles forming the pelvic diapragm and anus. Older male entire dogs are particularly affected and these often have concurrent enlargement of the prostate gland.
  • Ventral abdominal ruptures occur at sites of wound breakdown (after ventral midline coeliotomy) and in older pregnant mares and cows, particularly those suffering from hydrops uteri.
  • Traumatic abdominal ruptures may occur at various locations in the abdomen resulting in prepubic ruptures, femoral hernias and paracostal ruptures in cats.
  • Omental/mesenteric rents may result in internal hernias causing partial or complete intestinal obstruction.
  • Epiploic foramen entrapment is a form of internal hernia affecting horses. Loops of small intestine may become trapped within the epiploic foramen and omental bursa causing complete intestinal obstruction and severe colic. Anecdotally, horses which 'windsuck' are at particular risk of this form of colic and it requires urgent surgical correction.
  • Richter's hernia is a rare form of hernia in which only one wall of the small intestine is trapped in the hernial sac, resulting in a partial intestinal obstruction.

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Biomaterials in the reconstruction of abdominal wall defects in animals: a review. Sharma, A. K.; Naveen Kumar; Gangwar, A. K.; Maiti, S. K.; SAARC Agricultural Information Centre (SAIC), Dhaka, Bangladesh, SAARC Journal of Agriculture, 2003, 1, pp 85-98, many ref.


Fossum, T. W. et. al. (2007) Small Animal Surgery (Third Edition) Mosby Elsevier

Image of congenital umbilical hernia in a pig from Cornell Veterinary Medicine

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