Malnourishment or poor nutrition can occur when your dog is not taking in adequate amounts of food, getting enough vitamins and nutrients from meals, or is getting an unbalanced diet, which contributes to an overabundance of calories and nutrients.
In the context of an underweight dog, malnourishment is common when the dog is not receiving enough nutritional benefit from food, either due to a lack of food or other factors that are negatively impacting the dog’s health. Although it’s a widespread opinion that only underweight dogs are malnourished, the reality is that obese dogs can also be malnourished due to the extent of their dietary intake.
What Causes Malnourishment in Dogs and How to Treat It
There are multiple reasons why malnourishment can become a concern in dogs. If you have recently rescued a dog from a shelter or taken in a stray dog that you’ve previously encountered, malnourishment is typically a common issue in these circumstances due to the dog’s lack of access to regular balanced meals.
Sometimes it’s easier to help a malnourished dog in these circumstances because they tend to recover once you establish a proper meal plan. However, if you notice signs of malnourishment in a dog that has otherwise been healthy in the past, this is an issue you should examine more closely to determine the root cause of the problem.
Sometimes dogs may become malnourished due to the quality of the food provided to them. Low-quality dog foods often include fillers which don’t contribute to the food’s overall nutrients and can make the dog feel full even though they haven’t eaten much. Other times, malnourishment in an otherwise healthy dog can indicate an underlying health concern such as a gastrointestinal disease or even parasites.
It is very common for dogs with parasites to experience malnourishment. The parasites tend to feed off the nutritional value in the food instead, leaving very minimal value to benefit your dog. In these latter instances, addressing the parasitic issue tends to resolve the malnourishment concern as well.
Recognizing Signs of Malnourishment
Although symptoms of malnourishment can manifest in different ways, there are a few common signs that you need to be mindful of when caring for your dog. These symptoms can include the dog’s skeleton or bones becoming more prominent than usual due to weight loss. You may also notice changes in the dog’s skin or fur, a weakened immune system, issues with bowel movements and gastrointestinal distress, or an overall weaker appearance. Your dog may lack energy or may experience changes in their interest levels. They may seem less playful or generally less interested in activities that would otherwise capture their attention.
Changes in the skin and fur may not always be immediately apparent, especially if this is not an area that you frequently observe when caring for your dog. One sign of nutritional deficiency or malnourishment may be that the fur becomes less soft and shiny compared to how it previously looked. Other times, owners have reported that their dog started rapidly losing fur without any natural reason, such as seasonal shedding.
If you look at your dog’s skin and notice that there are areas of redness, new rashes, or the skin seems more dry or fragile than usual, it can be another hint that your dog isn’t receiving adequate nutrition. Dealing with this issue can sometimes be as simple as needing to increase the dog’s intake of specific vitamins or amino acids in its food. Other times, more intricate adjustments may need to be made to the dog’s diet to ensure that they are receiving appropriate nutrients.
Other signs of malnourishment can be very subtle and may not initially seem connected to inadequate nutrition. These symptoms can include bad breath, obesity, increased allergic reactions, body odor, or flatulence. Sometimes dog owners don’t realize that these symptoms are related to malnourishment because these are also signs of other conditions or pre-existing health concerns. For example, if a dog already has dental problems, it is unlikely that the dog owner will consider bad breath a potential symptom of malnourishment.
While these are visible examples that your dog may be suffering from malnourishment, it’s best to have these concerns addressed professionally by your dog’s veterinarian. Malnutrition can only be diagnosed through a series of physical exams and tests, especially in instances where it results from an underlying health condition.
Ways to Feed a Malnourished Dog
Sometimes the key to addressing how to put weight on a malnourished dog is getting the dog to become interested in eating again. You will have to become smarter and more creative in your approaches to meeting your dog’s nutritional needs. This can mean having a variety of food and dietary options available throughout the day.
Many dog owners resort to feeding raw food or preparing home-cooked meals in these scenarios, hoping to encourage their pets to become interested in eating again. This can be as simple as adding raw proteins along with your dog’s usual foods, incorporating rice, or even introducing an egg. Some dogs become more interested in eating their regular dog food if you add broth or oils.
Only Use High-Quality Dog Food
Switching to high-quality dog food is another simple way to treat your malnourished dog. Just as humans require certain nutrients and proteins to live healthy lives, your dog requires similar to ensure that they can function with plenty of energy and nutritional support. Low-quality foods can be cheaper to afford, but often don’t provide the necessary support that a dog’s body needs.
As a general guideline, you should always read the ingredients listed on potential dog food options and take special consideration of how these ingredients can impact your dog’s health. Decent dog food should at least provide adequate sources of calcium, vitamin D, carbohydrates, and proteins. The absence of these core elements can lead to detrimental health outcomes for your dog.
Offer Supplemental Treats
Having a variety of snacks and supplements is a great way to encourage your dog to eat and to help put on extra pounds during the recovery stage. Dogs love to receive treats throughout the day and will typically take an interest in snacks even if they’ve already finished their meal. Sometimes you can use dog treats as a topper on your dog’s regular food.
However, this shouldn’t turn into a regular practice because it may eventually cause the dog to be less interested in daily meals without the topper. You can provide supplements in the form of oils or flavored vitamins specifically designed to support your dog’s health.
Take care not to underfeed your dog because this is another concern that some dog owners are not actively aware of. If your furry companion is very active and has high energy levels, the amount of food provided per day needs to support their ability to stay active.
If a dog is not being fed enough but is still participating in high levels of activity and exercise, they may begin to lose weight due to burning more calories than they take in. Other times, you might think that you’re feeding your dog enough food based on the general recommendation for the breed, but the selected food may not have the correct amount of calories. This can still result in underfeeding.
It’s best to research recommended types of dog food and calorie levels for your dog’s specific breed to ensure that you’re feeding them properly, especially since their dietary needs can vary greatly among different breeds. If you’re uncertain about what type of food or how much food you need to provide for your four-legged companion, you can consult with your veterinarian for further guidance.
Similarly, it’s equally important not to overfeed your dog because this can put them at risk for a negative reaction known as refeeding syndrome, which can cause gastrointestinal distress or even lead to death. Since your dog won’t be accustomed to eating a lot of food at once or taking in so many calories and nutrients, it will be harder for their body to process it. Therefore, you have to take care when feeding multiple meals in smaller amounts and never force your dog to eat if they’re not hungry.
Caring for a malnourished dog and helping them gain weight again can be a challenge, especially in situations where the dog is severely underweight. There are many aspects of feeding that you can address at home by making adjustments to the types of food provided, the frequency of feedings, food quality, and more. However, your knowledge of addressing your dog’s malnourishment is still limited compared to that of a veterinarian.
If your dog doesn’t seem to take any further interest in eating or if you notice the signs of malnourishment are worsening, you should reach out to your veterinarian as soon as possible for professional guidance and recommendations.
Your veterinarian will be able to prescribe different supplements and dietary adjustments to help your dog recover from malnourishment much quicker. Working together, you’ll be able to help your dog gain weight and return to a healthier, happier pup within a shorter period.