If you’re going to try to take care of a dog that’s considerably underweight, it isn’t always as easy as just giving him some tasty treats and filling his tummy until it bulges. Overly thin dogs may have more problems that simply being skinny, and it pays to proceed carefully.
The first thing to do when caring for an underweight dog is determine the reason he is too thin. It may simply be a lack of food, but it may also be the result of parasites, such as roundworms and tapeworms, or an illness such as distemper or parvovirus, even if he’s no longer sick. Other serious problems can also cause a dog to be underweight, including cancer, heart difficulties and liver or other organ disease. A vet can run a series of tests to diagnose the reason the dog is underweight.
A dog that is severely malnourished is at risk for developing metabolic problems in response to the sudden switch from starvation mode to having an abundance of food. This condition, dubbed refeeding syndrome, can cause serious complications including coma, muscle weakness, heart problems and fluid retention. While not all starved dogs will experience these difficulties, dogs that have not eaten in at least five days and dogs whose body weight is 10 percent or more below the ideal are at risk, and other dogs may also have trouble if fed too much too soon.
It’s best to use caution when feeding a severely underweight dog, especially if you don’t know anything about his history, such as the food he’s used to or when he last ate. The Koret Shelter Medicine Program suggests you start the dog off with very tiny amounts of food, about a quarter of what he’d need if he was in good shape, and divide that into six equal meals. Slowly increase the amount of food and decrease the number of daily feedings over a period of about 10 days. Once you get him to that point, he can eat normally again.
When deciding what to feed your underweight dog, look for foods that are high in fat and low in carbohydrates. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals suggests you consider feeding the dog a good-quality puppy food, as long as he is thin but essentially healthy. Check with your vet for advice on supplements, such as parenteral thiamine, that your dog may need until he regains his normal body weight.
- dog image by Michal Tudek from Fotolia.com