Dogs and cats love to eat, and sometimes they pay for their hearty appetites by getting noticeably rotund. Unlike humans, however, overweight pets don't get a potbelly -- they get round all over. A dog or cat that is generally lean but is pooched-out in the middle almost certainly has a medical problem.

In puppies and kittens, a big belly is usually a sign of parasites, says Kristin Varner, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Severn, Maryland. Parasites such as roundworms live in the intestines, robbing your pet of essential protein. When protein levels fall, pets may begin secreting fluids into the abdomen, causing a potbelly.

A potbelly that comes on very suddenly in dogs -- within an hour or two -- is probably caused by bloat, a life-threatening condition in which the stomach fills with gas, says Thomas Schmidt, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Fort Washington, Maryland. Vets aren't sure what causes bloat. It usually occurs after large meals and is most common in big, deep-chested dogs like Labrador retrievers and Great Danes.

It is normal for dogs and cats to have small amounts of fluid in their abdomens, just enough to keep the organs moist. But pets with internal problems such as cancer or liver or heart disease will often retain fluids, causing their bellies to swell to several times their normal size, says Knox Inman, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in West River, Maryland.

Pets with a hormonal problem called Cushing's disease, which can occur when the adrenal glands are overactive or as a side effect of medications such as prednisone, will often get a potbelly. Because this condition weakens the abdominal muscles, the stomach may droop toward the ground as well. Cushing's disease is fairly common in dogs, but it rarely occurs in cats.

One of the most obvious causes of a potbelly -- one which many owners forget to consider -- is pregnancy. From the time a pet starts to show until the time she delivers, her belly may double or even triple in size. So if you have an unspayed female and you suspect that she has had some unauthorized visitors lately, you may want to ask your vet whether the pet is expecting.

See Your Vet If...

  • The swelling appeared quickly or after eating
  • Your pet is 12 weeks or younger
  • Your pet has been hit by a car or has taken a bad fall, even if she seems fine afterward
  • She is acting confused and disoriented
  • The joints are swollen or tender
  • Her sleep patterns have suddenly changed
  • She is fainting or having seizures
  • Your pet has gotten wobbly or clumsy
  • She is stiff or sore for no apparent reason
  • Her abdomen is bloated or feels tight
  • Your pet is pregnant and overdue or has passed a dead kitten or puppy
  • Her feet are cold or swollen
  • Her skin, gums, or mucous membranes are turning yellow
  • Your pet is reluctant to move or can't stand up
  • She is shivering or shaking even when it isn't cold

Next Steps:

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Copyright 1999 Rodale Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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