If you’ve ever played an instrument or been to a yoga class, you’ve probably heard the command to breathe from your diaphragm. But did you know that animals also have a diaphragm in their pelvis? This diaphragm is made up of muscles that are primarily used to bear down when going to the bathroom, or for giving birth. These muscles offer the support that the body needs to move things through the intestines or birthing canal, and when they don’t offer this support, it puts a lot of strain on the body in what is called the perineal area – the area surrounding the pelvis.
When a dog is diagnosed with a perineal hernia, it means that the pelvic diaphragm muscles did not provide enough support, and that caused a hernia to develop. Oddly enough, this condition is most often seen in male dogs that have not been neutered. In this guide to perineal hernias in dogs, we will cover everything you need to know about this condition, including:
- Causes of perineal hernias in dogs
- Perineal hernia symptoms
- Breeds prone to perineal hernias
- Diagnosis of perineal hernias in dogs
- Perineal hernia treatment
- Aftercare and managing perineal hernias
- Prevention of perineal hernias in dogs
This condition can be very dangerous for a dog’s health, so it is important to know how to identify perineal hernias in dogs. Here’s what you need to know.
What Is a Perineal Hernia?
Let’s define what a perineal hernia actually is before we dive into the information you need to know.
A hernia is a hole in part of the body that shouldn’t be there. If there is a wall that separates certain body cavities, such as the intestinal wall that separates the interior of the digestive tract from the pelvic cavity, and the wall gets a defect or a hole, it can lead to the contents of the digestive tract spilling out into the pelvic cavity. There are many types of hernias that the body can develop.
In the case of perineal hernias, the hole forms in the area where the pelvic cavity is separated from the perineal area, which is the area between the scrotum and anus. When this hole forms, some of the pelvic cavity contents drop down into the perineal area and form a blockage.
Causes of Perineal Hernias in Dogs
There are many reasons that a dog could develop a perineal hernia. The most common cause of this condition is age. As dogs get older, the pelvic muscles get weaker. Thisis most commonly seen in male dogs that have not been neutered, and many animal scientists think it’s related to the way the male hormones fluctuate in their old age.
However, there are many other reasons that a dog could have perineal hernias. Some of those reasons include:
- Injury to the pelvic area
- Straining too hard to urinate or defecate during a spell of constipation
- Bodily infections
- Cancer and tumors in the area
- Other hormonal issues
- Genetic conditions
Female dogs and neutered male dogs can also develop perineal hernias, although it’s not as common. But the fact that they can develop this issue means that the fluctuation of male hormones in aging dogs is not the only cause of perineal hernias.
Perineal Hernia Symptoms
The most common symptom of perineal hernias in dogs is the swelling on the rear end. This looks like a strange growth near the anus and may contain a variety of internal parts. For example, this swollen growth may contain the dog’s bladder, prostate, or small intestine – or it may just be filled with fat. If the growth isn’t as noticeable, some other signs that you may see from your dog include:
- Being very constipated or straining to defecate or urinate
- Being unable to urinate at all, or urinating in interrupted bursts
- Acting as though their abdomen is painful to the touch or to lay on
- Being lethargic
- Being depressed
- Unwillingness to eat
- Carrying the tail strangely or walking strangely
Breeds Prone to Perineal Hernias
While it is not known why precisely, there are eight breeds that are more likely than any other breed to develop perineal hernias. Those eight breeds are:
- Welsh Corgi
- Boston Terrier
- Old English Sheepdog
If you own a dog of this breed, and it is an unaltered male, it is important to pay close attention to your dog’s behavior and bathroom habits as he gets older.
There has been some suggestion that perineal hernias are more common in dogs with docked tails, but there is no scientific study to back that claim up.
Diagnosis of Perineal Hernias in Dogs
In order to diagnose perineal hernias in dogs, your veterinarian will perform a rectal exam. This involves several steps:
- First, the vet will take a look at any swellings, growths, or masses on the rear end to determine if they are hernias. Usually, if the mass can be pushed back into the body (by a trained professional – don’t try this at home!), it is a hernia.
- Then, the vet will draw blood and take a urine sample to determine your dog’s current state of health. A metabolic profile and abdominal work-up will be performed to ensure that the dog isn’t suffering from some other illness that could cause a growth, such as cancer.
- Next, the vet may recommend certain scans like an ultrasound or a radiograph, to determine what exactly may be inside the hernia. This can also help identify if the dog is suffering from prostate disease instead of perineal hernias. The vet will look for all the vital organs to be sure they are in their proper place.
- If there are organs trapped in the hernia, this can be a life-threatening situation. In this case, your vet might refer you to a veterinary surgeon or specialist if they are not equipped for this type of delicate surgery.
- At any point during this diagnostic process, the vet may suggest putting your dog under general anesthesia so that the dog can be fully examined. Many dogs won’t allow a vet to examine their anal area, and if they are in pain, their response may get violent.
If it is determined that your dog isn’t suffering from cancer, prostate disease, or any other issue, then it is most likely that the growth on your dog’s body is a perineal hernia.
Perineal Hernia Treatment
If it is determined that the dog has organs trapped in the hernia, the only course of action is surgery. Usually this is considered an emergency situation, and the surgery is performed very soon after diagnosis.
However, if it is a non-emergency perineal hernia, wherein the hernia doesn’t contain vital organs, there are two main courses of treatment to choose from.
The first type of treatment plan is referred to as medical therapy. In this treatment plan, several things are combined to help the dog get over the symptoms while the hernia is allowed to heal on its own. Those things include:
- Enemas to assist with constipation
- Stool softeners to prevent future constipation
- IV fluid therapy to rehydrate the dog
- Dietary management to avoid things that could exacerbate the problem
- Analgesics to manage pain
The second option for treatment is elective surgery. The point of surgery is to repair the hernia in the pelvic diaphragm, as well as possibly connecting the vital organs to the wall of the abdomen to keep them in place. Many veterinary surgeons will also place a faux muscle flap over the hernia to help it heal faster. Additionally, the surgery will usually also include neutering an unaltered dog to lower their chances of getting another perineal hernia in the future.
Surgery will require several weeks of recovery and aftercare, but it is the only option for dogs that have serious perineal hernias that involve the organs.
Aftercare and Managing Perineal Hernias
For the most part, the prognosis for perineal hernias is very good. Most dogs recover fully, and only about 10% ever get another perineal hernia in the future. It is usually recommended that dog owners prevent their dog from having too much extensive activity, and that they watch them carefully for signs of constipation in the future.
There are some complications that can occur after surgery for perineal hernias. Rectal prolapse, nerve injury, incontinence, or the formulation of fistulas can occur, although these are rare. The most common out of these complications is rectal prolapse, which can usually be treated with a suture called a purse string. Once the entire area has healed, this can be removed.
If your dog has surgery, they’ll typically be on antibiotics and pain medications while they recover. Their diet may have to change as well to include more fiber and some stool softeners, just to help the dog not have to strain while the area heals. You may also need to apply a cold compress to the area to reduce the swelling, and you’ll probably want to put your dog in a cone collar so they don’t damage the stitches.
Prevention of Perineal Hernias in Dogs
While there is no way to truly prevent perineal hernias completely, it should be noted that this condition is very rare in male dogs that are neutered. If you don’t intend to breed your dog, having him neutered is probably the best way to prevent perineal hernias as much as possible.
Another way to think about the chance of perineal hernias versus having a dog neutered is to look at the cost. The treatment of a perineal hernia at most veterinary clinics or schools will easily cost over $5,000 in many areas around the country when all is said and done. However, having your dog neutered usually doesn’t cost more than $150 or so. And the cost of treatment for perineal hernias could be much more if the dog gets another hernia in the future. Not to mention this is a very painful and lengthy healing process for your dog, while being neutered is only requires a couple of days of healing.
Otherwise, the only thing you can do to help prevent perineal hernias is to watch your dog for signs of constipation, and offer them stool softeners to help them get through it. If you can reduce strain on your dog’s pelvis, especially as they get older, there is less chance that they may get a hernia. With female dogs or dogs that are neutered, this is the only real prevention technique that exists. Your vet may be able to offer you more ideas for your dog’s specific health and history.
The Final Word
Overall, the biggest thing to know about perineal hernias is that they are most common in dogs that are not neutered, and that neutering your dog is the best way to protect them from this potentially dangerous condition. While perineal hernias are usually easy to treat, they are very expensive to treat – much more expensive than just neutering your dog!
A perineal hernia occurs when a hole forms between the pelvic cavity, where vital organs like the intestine, the bladder, and the prostate are located, and the perineal area between the anus and scrotum. When this happens, a growth can form, which can be relatively easy to clear up if filled with fat, or can be potentially very dangerous if filled with part or all of a vital organ.
If you see your dog straining to go to the bathroom, or if you notice a growth around their anus, it is important to head to the vet as soon as you can to prevent the chance that your dog will develop a more serious hernia.
Finally, adding stool softeners or more fiber to an older dog’s diet can help prevent them from developing age-related perineal hernias.
Now that you know how to recognize, treat, and potentially prevent this condition, you’ll be ready to help your dog have the best golden years ever.