If you are perplexed because your pooch is getting a paunch or your feline is no longer streamlined, consider their ancestors. Dogs and cats were originally predators that ate whatever they could when they could. It made sense because they were never sure when their next meal was coming along.

Pets today, of course, "hunt" by stalking their food bowls, but they are genetically programmed to eat in the same way that their ancestors did --by stuffing themselves at every opportunity.

Overeating and the resulting Weight gain usually occur because we, their owners, find it difficult to resist their pleading eyes and give them more food than they really need, says Craig N. Carter, D.V.M., Ph.D., head of epidemiology at the Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Overeating tends to be more of a problem when there is more than one pet in the family. Dogs and cats hate the idea that someone else is going to eat their food, so they may gobble as much as they can as fast as they can. In addition, dogs and cats, like people, will sometimes eat too much when they are depressed or anxious, says Deborah C. Mallu, D.V.M., a holistic veterinarian in private practice in Sedona, Arizona.

In rare cases, pets will eat and eat because they are emotionally incapable of stopping, a condition that vets call obsessive-compulsive disorder, says Karen L. Overall, V.M.D., Ph.D., head of the behavior clinic at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia.

There are a number of medical problems that cause dogs and cats to start eating more, Dr. Carter adds. Pets with Cushing's disease, for example, in which the adrenal glands produce too much cortisol (a steroid hormone), crave more food because the excess cortisol breaks down muscle and other tissue. This drains the body of necessary protein, and pets often eat more in order to replace it. An overactive thyroid gland, or hyperthyroidism, can also cause overeating, says Dean Gebroe, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Los Angeles. "You'll see your pet begin to overeat, yet maintain the same weight," he explains. "But as the disease progresses, he will start to lose weight."

Other physical problems that can cause overeating include parasites, diabetes, pancreatitis (an infection of the pancreas), or tumors in the pituitary gland. In addition, pets that are taking steroids, which are sometimes used after injuries, will sometimes eat everything in sight.

Overeating is always cause for concern -- not only because it may be a sign of other, underlying problems but also because it is often followed by Weight gain, which can be extremely unhealthy, says John E. Bauer, D.V.M., Ph.D., professor of clinical nutrition at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine in College Station. "The incidence of orthopedic problems in obese pets is incredible," he says, "and the cost of repairing ruptured ligaments is high."

See Your Vet If...

  • Your pet gobbles everything in sight.
  • He eats a lot but is losing weight.
  • Your pet is taking steroids.
  • Your pet has eaten antifreeze, houseplants, or other harmful substances.
  • She has missing or broken teeth.
  • Her teeth are gray or black.
  • She has been vomiting for more than a day or is vomiting blood.
  • She has had diarrhea or constipation for a day or more.
  • You have noticed weight gain or weight loss.
  • Your pet hasn't eaten for more than 24 hours.
  • She is eating, drinking, or urinating much more than usual.
  • Her abdomen is bloated or feels tight.
  • She is drooling more than usual.
  • There is a bulge in her throat.
  • Your pet seems unusually tired and lethargic.
  • She has sores on her gums or tongue.
  • She seems to be having trouble chewing or swallowing.

Next Steps:

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