How to Safely Help Malnourished Dogs Gain Weight? (Real Experience with Pictures)
This guide will introduce the real experience of how I helped the malnourished dogs gain weight.
As a regular volunteer at my community’s local animal shelter, I’ve seen plenty of starving dogs come into the shelter.
Most are found as strays who probably got out or were dumped and struggled to find food.
However, I’ve seen a few who were intentionally neglected.
One skin-and-bones dog was found in a yard with a metal chain that was so tight around her neck and had embedded under some of the skin.
Another was found in an empty house where the owners had moved away and just left her to die.
One of the most recent emaciated cases to come into the shelter was a pit bull we named Nye.
Found as a stray, Nye had most likely been used as a bait dog to train pit bulls for fighting.
Alone, scared, and starved down to skin and bones, Nye is now healthy, happy, and looking forward to life with a new family.
The key to putting weight back on Nye was simple:
In general, this kind of treatment is what’s needed. But let’s take a deeper look at why.
How a Dog’s Body Responds During Starvation
Here’s what happens when an otherwise healthy dog goes without eating.
1 Day without Food:
The dog’s natural biochemical functions go into survival mode. The dog’s body’s first priority is to keep its blood sugar concentration at a normal level by mobilizing stored glucose from the muscles and liver.
If blood sugar (blood glucose) drops too low, the dog’s heart, brain, kidneys, and muscles quickly shut down, leading to death.
2 Days without Food:
The liver’s glucose reserves are depleted, so chemical reactions within the body allow glucose to be created by pulling from the muscle and fat reserves.
3 Days without Food:
The dog’s metabolism slows in order to decrease the use of body fat for energy and continues to be slow until food is consumed or the dog dies.
The pancreas secretes less insulin, lowering thyroid hormone levels.
The liver also releases ketones into the bloodstream, which become the dog’s source for energy.
This allows the dog to conserve the small amounts of glucose that remain.
5 Days without Food:
Fat becomes the primary source for energy.
Other Reasons Dogs May Need to Eat More
My experience with underweight dogs has been through my volunteer efforts at the local animal shelter.
However, there are times when our pet dogs need to put on a little more weight to be healthy. The guidelines in this article can be used for them as well.
Please note that if your dog suddenly stops eating, this may be the first indication that something is wrong. It’s best to contact your vet.
Some reason a dog might stop eating include:
1. It could be something as simple as a mild tummy ache from too many treats, but not eating can also indicate much more serious issues, like Parvo or Pancreatitis.
2. Dental Disease: If your dog’s teeth hurt, your dog may not feel like eating.
3. Vaccinations: If your dog recently got its shots, it may not feel quite right afterward. The loss of appetite should only last about a day. If it’s longer, contact your vet.
4. Lifestyle Changes: If your dog is in a new environment, like a new house or traveling, the stress can cause it not to want to eat.
Likewise, if a family member is missing (e.g., on a business trip), or if you’ve experienced the recent loss of a pet, your dog may mourn and not want to eat.
5. Changes in Food: Switching dog foods, particularly to a low-fat version of food, may keep your dog from eating.
Safely Feeding a Starving Dog
Any time a dog is found that is obviously significantly underweight, it’s best to have it seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
However, if there are not underlying health problems that caused the weight loss, dog owners and rescuers can usually help the dog regain weight safely.
When a dog has been visibly starving, it’s hard not to overfeed the dog because it’s so hungry.
A starved dog’s food needs to have the right nutritional value. High protein, low carb is important, but food also needs to have minerals, particularly magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus.
Ideally, the starved dog will also receive a broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement. Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, and the amino acid glutamine & arginine also can be good.
I asked my friend John Allison, who has been rescuing dogs in Georgia through is private rescue Suzie’sFriends.org for almost 20 years, what he recommends when feeding emaciated strays.
“Initially, I would recommend feeding them one part dry small bites – even if it is a big dog – to one part wet, simply because they will gorge themselves to begin with., which we’ll get into in a moment.
The small bites will digest quicker and the wet will help reduce the chances of constipation. After a day or two, they will realize the food will be there and they need not eat so much at one time. More is coming.”
It’s best to feed a starving dog small meals several times a day at first rather than one or two large meals.
With Nye, the starving pit bull mentioned at the beginning of this piece, the shelter simply fed her small bowls of puppy food several times a day. Feeding him too much too quickly could have been dangerous.
What are the potential dangers of feeding a dog too much, too quickly?
I was told by one of the shelter employees that feeding a starving dog too much too quickly could actually cause its stomach to rupture (although I can’t find much about it on the Internet).
While rare, it does happen to humans and other animals.
A more likely scenario, however, is that the dog’s stomach will not be able to hold the food and vomit it back up.
However, there are some other serious health problems that can arise from feeding too much, too quickly as well.
Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV):
When a dog eats too much, too quickly, it can suffer from canine bloat. As the food passes to the stomach, the stomach builds up gas and starts to swell like a balloon.
If it swells too much, it can limit the circulation to the heart. The stomach can also suffer from a lack of blood flow, destroying some of the stomach tissue., which we’ll get into in a moment.
Another problem with a swollen, gassy belly is that it can twist (Volvulus). If it twists both at the top and the bottom, it will cut the stomach off from the esophagus and the pyloric valve, preventing the gas from leaving the stomach. Left untreated, this can be fatal within hours.
Gastric Dilatation and Volvulus (GDV):Refeeding Syndrome:
As I explained earlier, when a dog is starving, the body’s glucose is depleted. As the dog starts to eat again, the body turns back to using glucose. For glucose to generate energy, it requires phosphorus, so it depletes the remaining phosphorus reserves in the malnourished.
The result of low phosphorus can be hemotolytic anemia. This is because the body’s red blood cells cannot maintain their shape and in turn, they burst, reducing oxygen delivery.
Again, when feed a malnourished dog, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus are important for these reasons., which we’ll get into in a moment.
Refeeding syndrome can also lead to less extreme gastrointestinal issues because the dog’s system can’t handle taking on that much food so fast. Dogs will develop diarrhea, vomiting, or loss of appetite due to gastrointestinal distress.
Finally, malnourished dogs sometimes have bacterial infections or bowel obstruction from eating garbage, so it’s important to keep a close eye on the dogs until you know they are digesting their food well.
Feeding small meals about four times a day is best and should be maintained until the dog’s regular appetite is back and some weight is put on.
How Much Should a Dog Eat?
Again, while the temptation may be to feed a malnourished dog as much as it will eat, this is not always a safe or smart option. Instead, they should only be allowed to eat as much as they would normally eat at their healthy weight.
There are a variety of formulas out there that nutritionists have developed and used to determine how many calories a dog needs to eat each day based on its ideal weight.
One such tool is the Maintenance Energy Requirement (MER), although this will vary depending on a number of features, including how active the dog is. Nonetheless, the MER chart is a good reference tool and starting place.
Here are some examples of the approximate number of calories an average dog requires daily based on weight:
Malnourished dogs may need a little higher calorie count, but the calorie intake will ideally be pretty close to what they would eat at their normal weight.
So, for example, in Nye’s case, a bull terrier should weigh about 44 pounds (20 kg), so he should receive the recommended 1151 calories as listed above, even though he was about 25 pounds when she was found. Feed based on the weight the dog should ideally weigh, not the current weight.
Fat and protein are the most important nutrients for a malnourished dog, or for any underweight dog. For dry dog food, look for foods that contain about 30% for protein and 18% for fat. If a dog seems significantly underweight, even more fat content is acceptable.
What If the Starving Dog Won’t Eat?
If two days pass and the dog hasn’t eaten at least as much as it should consume in 24 hours based on its ideal weight, the dog may have to be force fed, which will require a veterinarian’s guidance.
Sometimes dogs who are used to a specific type of dog food may not eat other types of dog food even if they are starving. Sometimes warming the food up a little or adding chicken broth and feeding in small doses will help.
I know I’ve hand-fed scared dogs at the shelter to get them to eat. Sometimes it just requires some patience and making them feel safe.
If the dog has been sick and not wanting to eat, try feeding rice or bland chicken with chicken broth to start with.
A good option to help put weight on dogs is a common recipe referred to as “satin balls,” which was first developed by Diana Carreon, R.N.,C. back in 1996.
These are often used for show dogs who need to put on weight, and they can be a good option for emaciated dogs as well. The recipe below can be reduced/adjusted for smaller dogs:
10 pounds hamburger meat
1 lg. box of Total cereal
1 lg. box oatmeal
1 jar of wheat germ
1-1/4 cup vegetable oil
1-1/4 cup of unsulfured molasses
10 raw eggs (including shells)
10 envelopes of unflavored gelatin
pinch of salt
Simply mix all the ingredients together and feed raw. It’s recommended that you divide the mix and freeze in bags, then thaw as needed.
Satin Balls probably shouldn’t be used as a continual meal supplement, but they are great for putting weight on dogs quickly, and they provide a ton of important nutrients, including all those mentioned earlier, necessary to help malnourished dogs safely put weight back on.
The Good News
Now you know how I helped malnourished dogs gain weight.
Dogs are resilient creatures. I’ve seen more than my share of starving, neglected, or abused dogs get the second chance they deserve to become not only physically healthy, but emotionally healthy as well.
Plenty of scared or “aggressive” dogs at the shelter are now gentle, loving, happy parts of new loving families.
As my friend John Allison explained, “It is amazing how well they come back. We have had dogs that you could almost see through come back an become the most beautiful, healthiest looking animals you have ever seen.”
This article was written by Allison Hester.