“Skin and bones” are words to describe a specific population of rescue dog. They’re the ones found staggering near death on the side of the street or rummaging through the dumpster looking for scraps of anything remotely edible. They’ve known what true hunger feels like, and recovering from near starvation isn’t an easy process.
Helping a rescue dog gain weight isn’t tossing them a few McDonald’s burgers and letting them go to town. It isn’t even leaving a limitless supply of dog food in their dish. Feeding a dog with the intent to help them gain weight needs to be done with the right food and a feeding schedule best suited for their specific health needs. Here are tips to get you started.
What to Feed
The quality of the food you feed is in many ways more important than the quantity. You’ll be faced with countless options standing in the aisle of a pet supply store or searching online. What you’re looking for is a healthy brand and a recipe that’s high in fat and protein. PetMD advises,
“It is suggested that dogs mildly to moderately underweight be provided with a diet moderately high in fat and protein. These diets should have adequate levels of carbohydrates, not predominantly carbohydrate. Try to feed products that show (for dry food) fat content of 18% and protein 28-30%”
You’ll find a handy nutritional chart along with a list of ingredients on the back of the dog food package. You want the first listed ingredient to be a specific type of whole meat, like chicken, turkey, lamb, or beef. What you don’t want is the first ingredient to be something that includes the words “meal” or “by-product.” Whole-meat foods will likely be more expensive, but it’s the best way to get your dog the protein they need. Cheap fillers like white flour, meat meal, corn syrup, and rendered fats offer little nutritional value and won’t do your dog any good.
Besides dog food, it’s also suggested to supplement a dog’s diet with human foods. Not all human food is safe or appropriate for dogs, however. The best choices are sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and boiled chicken.
How Much to Feed
Stomachs don’t actually shrink when they’re deprived of food, but not eating for a prolonged amount of time does affect the stretch receptor nerve impulses in the stomach. This means the dog will feel full sooner and with less food than they normally would. They might still try to consume a regular-sized meal, but the feeling of overeating causes tummy troubles. If you’ve ever ignored your stomach’s protests and continued eating after the first feelings of being full, you know how uncomfortable it can be.
An emaciated dog will be physically unable to eat large amounts of food, but overfeeding can have serious consequences beyond feeling uncomfortable. “Refeeding syndrome” commonly affects shelter dogs and happens when a starving dog is fed too much too quickly. It depletes the body’s stores of phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium and leads to muscle weakness, cardiac abnormalities, nausea, diarrhea, and seizures. It can also be fatal.
To avoid refeeding syndrome, it’s important to feed the dog slowly. Wisconsin Federated Humane Societies advises,
“Animals should be fed starting at 25% of their resting energy requirement (RER) for the first 24 hours. “
To calculate a dog’s RER, take their weight in kilograms, multiply by 30 and add 70. Your answer is how many k/cals a day they should be eating. Pet Obesity Prevention provides a helpful table to help you determine your dog’s RER.
After the first day of feeding 25% of the dog’s RER, the amount should be gradually increased by 25% each day until the full amount is reached. When the risk of refeeding syndrome is passed, PetMD advises dog owners to estimate their pet’s ideal weight and feed them according to the suggested serving size listed on the food’s packaging.
For example, say you’ve adopted a Mastiff mix that currently weighs 80 pounds. Your veterinarian estimates a healthy weight for the dog to be around 120 pounds. After slowly working their way up to a full meal, you should feed your dog the recommended serving size for a 120-pound dog. Every dog food brand is required to have serving size suggestions usually found on the back of the bag.
When to Feed
Healthy dogs are typically fed 1-2 large meals a day, but for your skinny pup, you’ll need to break up meals into smaller portions. It goes back to the fact the stomach isn’t stretching like it should. The dog will feel full after consuming only a small amount of food. Spreading meal times out throughout the day will help them eat more without making themselves feel sick. It’s recommended to split the daily suggested food amount into four meals spaced evenly throughout the day.
Things to Remember
Exercise is still important. Most people exercise to lose weight, not gain it, but even severely skinny dogs need to get up and move. It depends on the breed, but the majority of a dog’s body weight is usually muscle. While they were starving, their muscle mass was systematically depleted in order to keep vital bodily systems running. They need to gain it back, and regular exercise is the only way to do it. We’re not talking about climbing mountains and running marathons, however. A walk once or twice a day until they gain more strength will be sufficient.
You should keep track of progress with a food log. Tracking your dog’s progress will tell you if your efforts are working, if it’s time to try something different, or if it’s time for another trip to the vet. Keep your log near your dog’s feeding station or next to where you store their food so you remember to use it with each meal. Keep track of how much food you give them and how much they eat. If they’re a picky eater, it’s a good idea to mark what kind of food they’ve liked and what kinds they’ve put their nose up to. You can also use the log to plot your dog’s weight over time.
Supplements fill in dietary gaps. Your dog missed out on calories during their time without food, and they were also losing essential vitamins and minerals. It’s important they rebuild what they lost, and broad-spectrum vitamin and mineral supplements are an effective way to correct dietary deficiencies. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are especially important. Dogs don’t produce these essential fatty acids naturally, and they rely on their diets to supply what they need. Fatty acids play a role in several bodily functions, and adding a daily supplement to their dish benefits overall health.
Some dogs are picky about their food. A lot of dogs will scarf down anything put in front of them regardless of what it is, but some are harder to please. It’s also not uncommon for skinny dogs to lose their appetite even though they’ve gone days without food. It could be general weakness or an illness keeping them from eating, but it’s essential for you to convince them to eat.
There are a number of ways to accomplish this. First, you can try different kinds of foods with different proteins. If your dog doesn’t seem to like the chicken-based food you’ve been feeding, for example, try salmon or beef. Moistening dry food with chicken broth can also entice appetites, and if you’re feeding a dry food for the higher caloric intake it has over wet food, you can still add a dollop of strong-smelling wet food on top of their regular meal.
The vet knows best. One of the first things you should do after bringing a rescue dog home (whether they’re underweight or not) is introduce them to a reliable veterinarian. A vet will be able to access their health and direct you on how to either maintain it or improve it. For a dog that’s severely underweight, they’ll tell you what the ideal weight should be and give instructions on how to help them put on the pounds. They might even have recommendations for specific brands of food and supplements. Helping a rescue dog gain weight needs to be a team effort between you, your vet, and your pup, too.