One evening whilst playing outside, a little 6 month old kitten (let’s call her Tilly) climbed up a tree. A rather inexperienced hunter, when she saw a little birdie on the end of the branch she reached out to get it and, crash! The branch was too thin to support her weight and she fell to the ground. Now what they say is often true, cats do tend to land on their feet, but not always and poor Tilly landed on her side. She got up though and ran into the house, so her owner assumed she was OK. A few hours later her owner noticed that she was quieter than normal and not interested in her dinner. She was also breathing faster than normal but otherwise seemed OK, purring and affectionate, so her owner went to bed and planned to take her to the vet if she was still not right in the morning.
As you could probably guess, at 8:00 the next morning I got a phone call from Tilly’s owner, as she had not gotten any better overnight – she was still very quiet and breathing even faster than before. We told her to come straight down and we would take a look right away. A few minutes later Tilly arrived, looking quite sorry for herself, but still happy enough to give me a little purr. I did a full physical exam and found her to be in good health except for her breathing, which sounded quieter than normal through the stethoscope. Her respiratory or breathing rate was very high and she seemed to be struggling to get enough air in. She also seemed depressed, certainly not what I would expect of such a lively young kitten. Once we were certain that everything else seemed to be OK, we gave her some pain medicine and then a little bit of sedation so she would sit still while we took some x-rays of her chest. What we found was no surprise given her history, but still always comes as a bit of a shock when we see it – Tilly had a diaphragmatic hernia.
What is a diaphragmatic hernia?
The diaphragm is a large, thin muscle that separates the chest cavity (with the heart and lungs) from the abdomen (with the stomach, liver and intestines among other things). It is normally an air-tight barrier which allows the chest cavity to achieve negative pressure, in other words there is pressure on the lungs to expand out rather than collapse in. When the diaphragm moves down with each breath, the lungs move with it causing them to expand even further when you breathe in. And when it moves back up again, it helps the lungs to contract so the air is forced out when you exhale. Without a diaphragm or with a damaged one you can still breathe, just not very well, and this is what poor Tilly was experiencing. A hernia is the protrusion of an organ through a hole in the body cavity which normally contains it. In the case of a diaphragmatic hernia, a hole develops in the diaphragm which allows the organs of the abdomen to enter the chest cavity……………………………….