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Kitty's 'apron'

Recently we at KYC received a letter from a slightly concerned cat owner. Margaret writes, 'My cat is a mature adult, and we've noticed that she has this sort of 'apron' that hangs from her belly. I donít think that our cat is getting fat because it's like an empty flap of skin. Is it anything I should be worried about?'

Well, let's start by putting your mind at rest, Margaret. Most cat owners notice that their kitty has a flap of skin on the underbelly, and yes, it can be rather alarming to see this sway from side to side as the cat walks along. Many people associate this, not so much with their cat being overweight (a common enough issue these days!), but - because this flap looks 'empty' - they worry that their cat must have suffered a disastrous weight loss.

There's another school of thought that has gained some traction on the internet, and this maintains that cats get these skin flaps as a consequence of being neutered, or being improperly neutered depending which posts you read. Actually though, it's probable that neither of these theories is correct - that flap is really there because your cat is a cat, and itís a normal and natural part of the feline anatomy.

So what is this suspiciously saggy skin? Well, let's call it by its proper name which is the feline primordial pouch. Note the 'feline' bit of that description, because primordial pouches are not limited to catus felix, the domestic cat. Veterinarians such as those at the Table View Animal Hospital in South Africa work with big cats such as lions and tigers, and these large predators also have similar folds which run the length of their abdomen, despite the animals never having been neutered in any way.

So we're not looking at a 'spay-sway' or 'belly flap' (two nicknames for the primordial pouch that you might find on the internet). Instead you are looking at a part of the feline anatomy which once served several quite important functions.

One of the things you'll have noticed about your cat's interactions with other cats is that these interactions are not always friendly. In fact things can get very unfriendly, which is why we describe a possible fight with the expression 'fur might fly'. During a fight some cats prefer to roll over and fight on their backs. This doubles the available weaponry available to the fighter, because that cat is no longer using any legs for standing, but it leaves the vulnerable belly dangerously exposed. Or the belly would be vulnerable if nature had not protected it with the primordial pouch, which has just enough fat in the loose skin to ensure that even a fully extended set of claws canít penetrate to anything vital.

But there is yet more to that loose skin. A cat's skin is not directly attached to its muscles, so that skin is very loose, not just on the primordial pouch but all over. You'll have seen vets 'scruffing' a cat - seizing the animal by the loose skin behind its neck and lifting it in that way. Done properly this does not cause any damage (your cat might not appreciate it, though) and in fact it is in this same manner that a mama cat transports her kittens if she has to.

The primordial pouch is a part of that same reason why ninjas wear loose-fitting clothes. If you are bending your body to extreme angles - as cats might do even when having a simple stretch - then it helps if your clothes are not going to get in the way. If a cat running at high speed was not little more than a blur, you would be able to see that at times her legs are almost straight out behind her, and that primordial pouch is stretched flat against her tummy muscles. Youíll be able to see this more easily when your cat is stretching on her hind legs to get into the goldfish bowl, or while in mid-leap off the sofa. There's no use in having a stretchy body if tight skin is going to hold you back.

One reason that this loose tummy skin is called a 'primordial' (early or primitive) pouch is because one reason for its existence no longer applies to most modern domestic cats, though it is still in use by wild cats of the African savannah. According to the vets from the Table View Animal Hospital, an additional benefit to having a loose flap of skin covering the belly comes back to the fact that not too long ago all cats were wild animals. If wild cats manage to kill a large prey animal, they want to eat as much of it as they can, because they donít know when their next meal will be. So while you might loosen your belt after a large Xmas dinner, the primordial pouch allows for considerably greater expansion.

So in summary, that loose skin under your kitty's belly is not a sign that the cat is overweight or has lost a lot of weight, or that the vet who performed the neutering procedure was unskilled. Rather, the primordial pouch is a natural part of a cat's anatomy and a reminder that her ancestors had harder lives than that of the pampered pet who decorates your couch today.

The information supplied here is intended as a guideline only.


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