bloated bellies: ascites in pets

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Ascites in pets
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Nov 12 2013

Updated February 21, 2019

Ascites is the buildup of fluid in the abdomen. The fluid accumulates in the space between the organs and over time it can cause abdominal distention. As fluid accumulates, it can also put pressure on the diaphragm, making breathing a challenge for those affected by the condition.

Unfortunately, ascites is not uncommon in dogs and cats, and it has plenty of underlying causes. If your pet has this condition, you can bet that there is a significant and serious underlying problem causing it.

Common causes of ascites in pets include:

Right-sided heart failure

While left-sided heart failure often results in fluid buildup in the chest, right-sided heart failure causes fluid accumulation between the organs.

Chronic liver disease

Due to decreased protein production by the liver or by increased resistance to blood flow in the liver.

Peritonitis

Inflammation or infection of the lining of the abdomen can cause fluid buildup.

Abdominal tumors

Decreased lymph flow or fluid production by the tumor can both contribute to this condition.

Protein-losing enteropathy

This gastrointestinal disorder causes protein to be lost through the stool. Low blood protein levels lead to ascites, just as in the case of chronic liver disease.

Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP)

In young cats, FIP is commonly the cause.

While we generally think of ascites as a buildup of clear fluids called transudates and exudates, strictly speaking, it is a buildup of any fluid, so two additional causes can be added to the list.

Hemorrhage

Blood in the abdomen (or hemoabdomen) can be caused by trauma, like when a pet gets hit by a car, tumors in the abdomen, or blood clotting disorders (including rodenticide ingestion).

Urinary bladder rupture

If a urinary blockage goes untreated, eventually the patient will succumb or the bladder will rupture, leaving the abdomen full of urine.

If you notice an extended belly in your cat, make sure you get to your veterinarian quickly. If you’re lucky it won't be anything as serious as ascites. But if your cat is, unfortunately, suffering from one of the above ailments, cat insurance will help give your furry friend the best treatment possible, while giving you peace of mind over the vet bill.

Prognosis and treatment of ascites in dogs and cats

While at the vet, diagnosis of ascites can sometimes be accomplished via physical exam only, as an uncomfortable distended abdomen is likely to be found. However, because ascites is only a symptom and not a disease, further diagnostics will need to be done to determine the underlying cause. Blood work, a urinalysis, and X-rays will provide a good database for identifying what might be causing ascites. Taking a sampling of the abdominal fluid can also help guide your vet towards an underlying cause.

The treatment and prognosis varies quite a bit depending on the underlying cause. If the condition can be cured or corrected, ascites can resolve. But sometimes it is present at the end stage of diseases that cannot be cured, and when this occurs, we can only try to manage ascites rather than resolve it.

Treating the underlying condition, such as heart or liver failure, with appropriate medications can decrease the amount of ascites present. Diuretics are the mainstay of medical therapy for ascites, but your veterinarian may recommend a special salt-restricted diet. In cases of ascites where a large volume of fluid is present in the abdomen, medical therapy may not be adequate to provide relief for your pet. In these cases, fluid can be removed from the abdomen in a procedure called an abdominocentesis. Removal of fluid can resolve discomfort from a distended abdomen and allow your pet to breathe easier.

ascites always has an underlying cause, and until that cause is addressed, it will continue to occur. In the case of chronic or end-stage diseases, ascites will likely continue to occur even with treatment, but the goal of treatment is to keep your pet comfortable.

If your pet has ascites, talk with your vet about quality of life issues and how to help your pet live the best way while managing his condition.