Let’s be honest: There’s almost nothing in the world that’s cuter than the soft pink belly of a newborn baby puppy. They are fun to rub, kiss, and blow raspberries on. If only puppies were ticklish, there’s a chance that their tiny bellies would be even more adorable. What if you rub a young dog’s stomach, however, and find an interruption in its smoothness, or a small bulge? The puppy could have an umbilical hernia.
Being a new dog parent can be stressful, and you may have a number of questions. Don’t panic, Dogster is here to answer them.
First of all, what is a hernia? Simply put, a hernia is a medical condition involving muscular weakness or incompleteness. If a muscle or lining is weak or underdeveloped, something it should easily contain may poke through and be visible just beneath the skin. A hernia is characterized by a slight bulge at the site of the structural weakness or gap.
There are two kinds of hernia, uncomplicated and complicated. Uncomplicated hernias in puppies tend to resolve themselves over the first few months of life without any kind of surgical intervention as the afflicted puppy grows and matures. Complicated hernias can be a bit more troublesome and pose slightly greater risks to health, but even these do not cause dire consequences if treated early.
Umbilical hernias are one of if not the most common types of hernias in dogs. They are most frequently observed in puppies between birth and 6 months of age. During dog pregnancy, a gestating fetus receives its nutrition via the umbilical cord that attaches it to its mother. Typically, after whelping, the umbilical cord is severed and the tiny wound quickly heals and the abdominal wall closes over it.
We say they are “common,” but that is only by rate of reported incidence. People often ask whether a dog even has a belly button, and umbilical hernias are actually quite rare. These types of hernias are characterized by a small bulge — usually anywhere between a quarter-inch and a full inch in diameter — at the site of what we would call the belly button in humans, the site where the umbilical cord was during fetal development.
There are two types of umbilical hernia in puppies: complicated and uncomplicated. The severity of the condition depends on the size of the gap or the degree of weakness in the abdominal muscle. The observable bulge may be fat protruding through the muscle wall or some internal organ, usually a part of the small intestine.
Although physical trauma can cause muscle weakness, the most common cause of umbilical hernia to manifest in a puppy is heredity. According to PetMD, there are a few specific breeds that this condition, while rare, occurs in with slightly greater frequency. Among them are the Airedale Terrier, Basenji, and Pekingese. Since breeders are recommended not to breed dogs who are afflicted with an abdominal hernia, and since most of us are careful to spay or neuter our domestic pets, there should be little risk of passing on the genetic predisposition.
In puppies, the signs of an umbilical hernia are easily observable. There will be a small bulge or protrusion at the spot where the base of the puppy’s rib cage meets the top of the stomach. It is most clear in very young puppies, who do not have their full coat of fur, and where the umbilical scar is still visible. If it is an uncomplicated hernia, the bulge may be very small, and only noticeable when the abdomen is in use or under pressure. This can be when the puppy barks or yelps or when he is evacuating his bowels.
Complicated hernias may be more apparent. What makes a hernia complicated is when a bit of an internal organ forces its way through the gap in muscle. In these cases, the greatest risk is that of curtailed or limited blood flow through the organ. Symptoms of complicated umbilical hernias, also called non-reducible, include noticeable pain when you apply pressure, vomiting, or regurgitation. Not only does a complicated hernia restrict natural blood flow, but also the passage of nutrients through the digestive tract.
Umbilical hernias tend to be among the simplest to resolve; most uncomplicated cases resolve themselves within the first six months of life. By that, we mean that, as the puppy grows, develops, and matures over his first few months, the weakness or gap, which is small to begin with, strengthens as the muscle does, closes, or is too insignificant to cause any real health issues.
If the abdominal muscle’s weakness or gap is severe enough and shows no sign of improvement by the time a puppy is mature enough to be spayed or neutered — usually by the time she is 8 weeks old or weighs 2 pounds — then a veterinarian may recommend a hernia surgery. This course of treatment is itself a simple one, involving little more than suturing, or stitching together, the gap in muscle or to reinforce the strength of the weak muscle.
Most umbilical hernias resolve themselves without any need for surgical intervention. Your vet can track the progress of an uncomplicated hernia over the course of the puppy’s first few checkups and recommend a course of action if it one is deemed necessary.
As long as the puppy is otherwise in good health, recovery from this surgery is typically no more problematic than one following a spay or neuter procedure, and there are very rarely any complications or recurrence of symptoms. If you are a new puppy parent and think you’ve spotted an umbilical hernia, the best thing you can do is bring it to the attention of your veterinarian as soon as possible.
About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a two-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Baby, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.