Cat Care: Understanding Hiatal Hernias

A hiatal hernia occurs when part of the stomach pushes up through the hiatus. This is the small gap in your cat's diaphragm that allows the oesophagus to connect to the stomach. Your cat's sphincter muscles usually prevent the stomach pushing though the hiatus, but when these muscles are weak or damaged, the functioning of the oesophagus becomes impaired and your cat can become seriously ill if the condition is not treated. Hiatal hernias are congenital in some cats and will manifest before the cat reaches adulthood. However, abdominal trauma at any stage in your cat's life can also cause a hiatal hernia. Here's an overview of the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment approach for hiatal hernias in cats:


A hiatal hernia can be painful and allow stomach acid to travel backwards through the oesophagus and into your cat's throat. It can also make swallowing difficult, so your cat may refuse food, which can lead to weight loss, lethargy and nutritional deficiencies. Regurgitation, vomiting and a persistent cough are also commonly experienced by cats with a hiatal hernia.

Diagnosis And Treatment Approach

Your vet will diagnose a hiatal hernia by taking details of your cat's symptoms and performing an endoscopy to view the opening of their stomach and take tissue biopsies. An endoscope is a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera attached to the tip, and it's inserted into your cat's digestive tract through their mouth. Your vet will be able to determine how much of your cat's stomach has pushed through the hiatus, the degree of inflammation this has caused in the surrounding area and whether stomach acid has damaged your cat's oesophagus. A tissue biopsy can be used to check for the presence of an infection, which can occur when the lining of the oesophagus is damaged.

Your vet will recommend a treatment approach based on the severity of your cat's symptoms. Your cat may be prescribed medication to decrease their stomach acid or drugs that can speed up digestion to prevent regurgitation. A course of anti-inflammatories may also be recommended to promote healing of damaged tissue. Additionally, alginates can be prescribed to coat the oesophagus, which will protect it from further damage.

If medication isn't effective at controlling your cat's symptoms, surgery may be recommended. Your vet will narrow the hiatus to prevent the stomach pushing through, and if scar tissue has formed in the oesophagus and caused narrowing as a result of stomach acid damaging the tissue, your vet can stretch the narrowed sections with a surgical balloon. Surgery is carried out under general anaesthetic, and the procedure can be completed using keyhole surgical techniques.

If your cat is displaying any of the symptoms of a hiatal hernia, schedule an appointment with your vet as soon as possible to prevent them experiencing unnecessary discomfort.