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Umbilical Hernia In Horses

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Umbilical Hernia

Like humans, horses are born with an umbilical cord, which connects them to their mothers. In foals, the healing of the wound created by the cord may cause hernias. The umbilical hernia is often harmless, but it’s important to check them out.

Umbilical Hernia In Horses

Hernias form when a small wound allows some tissue to slip through. This sounds like a vague description, but this is because there are several types of hernias, involving different types of tissues. The most common is an umbilical hernia, which affects several horses at birth.

The umbilical cord connects to the foal in the mother’s womb, connecting the foal to the mare. The cord keeps the horse fed and helps clean out, as it connects to the bladder. Once the foal is born, the umbilical cord separates. The abdominal wall (which envelopes the viscera) is one the last parts to fully close, because of this. Once the cord is cut, the wound heals and the abdominal wall closes entirely.

Sometimes, however, a small rip may remain. This wound allows the intestine to slip through. You can tell if, when touching the horse’s navel region, you feel a bump. This may vary in size and volume, depending on the size of the rip, but it’s usually fairly small. In very young foals, this may resolve itself. Foals can be born with a hernia, or show one in a few weeks after birth.

Only about 2% of foals have umbilical hernias, but it’s always best to check. They become more frequent is the mare is nervous during delivery, or if human intervention and handling disturbs the process. Never pull the cord from the foal — it should rupture on its own. If the mare stands too quickly after birthing, or someone pulls the cord, this may cause a premature rupture that takes longer to heal.

What to do if your horse has an umbilical hernia?

The size of a hernia varies, but it’s usually between 2 and 12 centimetres. If it’s very small, it may heal on its own.

Nonetheless, it’s important to monitor it. If it’s soft, painless and you can move it, there is no real harm (but still requires a veterinarian’s visit). If the region is hot, painful or swollen, on the other hand, it can become harmful. They can become very dangerous if the tissue becomes strangled (cutting blood flow) or infected. Some might look quite ugly, but not be harmful.

Umbilical hernia in a foal

A foal with an umbilical hernia. Image by Adelaide Hills Equine Clinic.

It’s always best to contact a veterinarian, and usually, if it’s small and not painful, the vet will recommend pushing the bulge back in on a daily basis, to help with healing. This is a good way to verify if it’s healing on its own and growing smaller. If it doesn’t heal naturally, veterinarian intervention may be necessary. Umbilical hernias usually disappear before the foal is four to six months old.

Treatment may involve surgery in some cases, or clamps. The clamps must be applied with care to not pinch any intestine. What it does is promote healing by pinching it together, a process that may take several weeks. For bigger hernias, though, surgery may be necessary. The surgery is a more complex process but heals faster.

Another method growing in popularity is the use of elastrator rings. These rings bind the excessive tissue (after pushing the intestines back in) and let it die out and drop. Care must be taken, as with the clamps, to not capture any intestinal tissue in the rings.

Important considerations

Do not leave umbilical hernias untreated. While they may be relatively harmless at first, there is always a chance it will grow. This may happen due to impact, stress or by accident. A bigger hernia may mean trapping the intestines and strangling them. If this happens, the strangled tissue may die, causing necrosis, which can be lethal. It’s best to consult a veterinarian and take the necessary actions, even if it seems small and harmless.

Hernias in older horses?

We’ve talked about hernias in newborn or very young foals, but what about adult horses? Yes, older horses can develop hernias as well. These are often due to injury or trauma around that region. The navel area may be weaker and more sensitive to injury, so it may rip and cause a hernia even in older horses and ponies. The treatments are the same, although healing naturally may be harder than for a very young foal.

If appropriately healed and treated, the hernia will heal and not cause any further issues to the horse.

So what do you think? Have you ever had a horse with a umbillical hernia? Feel free to share your opinions and experience in the comments below.

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