Sometimes there is a general enlargement of the entire belly region in older dogs. The entire abdomen appears to have dropped down. While this may be due to a variety of reasons, one of the most common causes is dropsy, a disorder of circulation in which certain body fluids, that should normally be distributed throughout the organism or eliminated as waste material through the urine, become accumulated in the abdominal cavity. Though it may occur in young dogs, it is encountered most often in very old ones, and is one of the prom¬inent diseases associated with geriatrics—that is, the study of the diseases of old age.
While the disease process is in operation, the animal appears normal in every respect except that the abdomen is noted to increase gradually in size. For a while the animal maintains its accustomed appetite and properly performs its vital functions. As time goes on, the abdomen increases further in size, the animal shows distress and decreased appetite, and occasionally will vomit because of the pressure of the excess abdominal fluid on its digestive organs. If the disease is allowed to run its course, the animal will die of either heart failure or gradual suffocation.
Dropsy is caused by the breakdown of the vital organs of the body. Disease processes in the liver, kidneys, heart, and lungs are associated in this circulatory disturbance. In fact, when there is a breakdown of any one of the vital organs of the body, this will lead inevitably to a breakdown of the others. The speed with which this will come about will depend upon the resistance of the animal and the severity of the affliction. The disease process may go on for several years before the symptoms show up, but once they appear they will become increasingly evident in anywhere from a few weeks to several months.
Because of the extensive tissue breakdown, the disease is generally classified as incurable. In rare cases the disease process may be arrested, but for the most part only relief measures are applied. Diuretics—drugs that will stimulate urination—are given in the form of ascorbic acid and certain arsenicals. The most effective measure is to have the abdominal fluid tapped, giving the animal immediate relief, so that it will get along very well for a period of from two weeks to about two months, depending upon the degree of tissue destruction. Within this period the abdominal fluid will usually return, at which time the animal must be tapped again. The owner is advised that the animal may pass away at any time either during or between tappings.
It is usually advisable to have the animal put to sleep when it is affected with dropsy but, if the owner insists, the dog may be subjected to intermittent tappings. There are many cases on record where animals treated in this manner have been kept alive tolerably well for several years.