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5 min read

Caring for a Malnourished Dog, What You Need to Know


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Shelters and rescue agencies are often faced with caring for dogs that are surrendered, found, or apprehended, and are suffering from malnourishment. Adoptive or foster pet parents that are caring for these dogs, or dog owners who take in a stray dog, need to take steps to properly care for undernourished dogs and ensure their return to a healthy weight. Also, owners that have a dog that is experiencing a health condition may find themselves faced with caring for a canine that has become malnourished as a result of a disease or disorder.

The instinctive thing to do, when faced with the care of an emaciated dog, is to feed them more. While providing more nutritious food is indeed a large part of care and recovery for underfed dogs, there are precautions that need to be taken and important information to be aware of when caring for a malnourished dog. Read on to ensure you provide the appropriate care for a dog in this situation.

What is Malnourishment?

Malnourished dogs are defined as dogs that have lost 10% or more of their body weight and are suffering extreme undernourishment. They are thin, and hip and rib bones are usually prominent. Malnourished dogs may suffer from lethargy, dehydration, skin conditions and symptoms of organ or neurological compromise. Malnourishment is usually the result of a serious lack of food being provided to the dog, but can also occur when food is provided but is of a poor quality that does not meet the nutritional requirements of the dog, or when a medical condition exists preventing the dog from making use of nourishment provided. When a dog is deprived of required nutrients, either through lack of food, or food deficient to meet their requirements, the dog's metabolism will slow down and organs will adjust their functioning.

When presented with an emaciated dog it is important to ensure that you understand the dog’s condition and any medical factors that may contribute to malnourishment. Malnourished dogs should be examined by a veterinarian to identify health conditions such as worms or other parasites, oral compromise, such as injuries to the mouth or teeth that are preventing normal eating or mastication of food, infection, infectious disease, cancer, metabolic disorder, or organ disorder that may exist and be contributing to, or causing, malnourishment. Any medical conditions present will need to be treated, and your veterinarian may recommend a specific diet to aid in recovery from malnourishment that is contributed to or caused by a medical condition.

It Is A Careful Process

Once medical conditions are addressed, restoring the dog to a healthy weight will require providing them with an appropriate recovery diet. It is often a good idea to record the dog's weight and diet, such as the amount of food provided, how often, the amount consumed, and any illness experienced.

Small amounts of sustenance, given several times daily, is usually recommended to start. If too much food is provided to an emaciated dog, they can develop refeeding syndrome, as drastic changes in minerals and other nutrients can overwhelm the dog’s compromised system. Additionally, chemical changes can result in serious illness. 

A high-quality puppy food, or food low in carbohydrates and high in fat and, protein and with minerals such a phosphates, magnesium and potassium is usually recommended. Determine the appropriate amount to feed the dog for their size and start by giving them about ¼ of the daily recommended dose in several small portions throughout the day. Gradually work up to providing the full daily amount required, over about 10 days’ time, monitoring the dog for signs of illness, digestive issues or the dog not tolerating the food being provided. Multiple small meals should still be provided rather than one or two large ones. 

Supplements are usually not necessary if a nutritionally complete commercial, or veterinary diet, is provided, but depending on the dog’s condition your veterinarian can determine if additional supplementation to address specific vitamin and mineral deficiencies is required. Too much supplementation for a malnourished dog can be harmful if drastic changes in nutrient levels result in chemical changes within the body resulting in refeeding syndrome, so supplementation should be done only on the recommendation of a veterinarian.

Providing too much food or supplements can result in digestive problems, neurological conditions, and compromised organ functioning as the dog’s system is overwhelmed with nutritional materials their system is not prepared for or able to process. Digestive distress may be exhibited by vomiting or diarrhea. If this occurs, you may need to adjust the type of food, or amount provided, until the dog's digestive system adjusts. Dogs that are malnourished should always be provided lots of water to prevent dehydration. Once the dog has built up some weight, and is on a full diet, providing them with free access to food so they can eat at will may be appropriate.

If the dog does not have an appetite, or refuses food, providing food with tube feeding until the dog recovers some strength, and digestive functioning, may be required, which will require veterinary care and support.

Work Alongside Your Vet

Malnourished dogs may experience problems regulating body temperature. Body temperature should be monitored and undernourished dogs will require a warm, dry environment or they can become easily chilled. Dogs with malnourishment have impaired immune systems, and care to ensure they are not exposed to contagions and are kept separate from other pets should be taken. Also, underfed dogs may exhibit behavioral issues, such as anxiety or aggression, and appropriate precautions with other pets and family members should be taken to ensure everyone’s comfort and safety.

Providing malnourished dogs with medical care to address conditions such as worms or disease is the first step in caring for a malnourished dog. High-quality dog food, and possibly supplements if recommended by a veterinarian, should be provided in small amounts several times a day with plenty of water. Monitoring of the dog's condition, and recording their dietary intake and weight gain progress can be helpful to determine if adjustments to their diet need to be made. 

Remember that a malnourished dog’s system can easily be overwhelmed, and they should not be exposed to disease or stress which they have little resistance to, or large changes in nutrients that could cause shifts in blood chemistry resulting in refeeding syndrome. A malnourished dog is in desperate need of nutritious food, and thoughtful care to restore them to a healthy weight. Pet owners who accept this challenge will need to invest time and patience into a malnourished dog’s recovery, but the rewards of seeing a dog restored to health and happiness are well worth it.

A high-quality diet is essential for keeping your dog happy and healthy. Digestive problems and food allergies can be expensive to treat. Compare pet health insurance plans to save more than $270 a year on vet care.

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