There are many possible reasons for loss of weight and condition; some are serious and will require veterinary intervention, whilst others are less severe and may often be resolved with an appropriate feeding regime. It is important to identify the cause / s and if necessary seek veterinary advice should a medical complaint be suspected. Any dramatic weight loss should always be investigated as a matter of urgency.
An underweight dog may be lacking in stamina, and insufficient nutrient intake can mean that dietary deficiencies are much more of a risk. This can seriously compromise the dog’s general health and wellbeing. And the solution is not always as simple as increasing the food intake because of the variety of causes or combination of causes that can contribute to an animal having difficulty holding or gaining weight. These include:- a poor appetite, adverse food reactions, metabolic stress, diseases affecting the digestive system and infectious causes (parasitic, viral or bacterial). Root causes MUST be identified and treated where necessary.
Breed standards can be helpful in establishing an optimal weight for adult dogs, but there can be considerable variation between different lines. Knowing the accurate healthy weight of your adult dog can be very useful because if weight is lost in future you will have an accurate record of by how much.
Weight loss will occur if your dog is not eating sufficient calories to meet his energy requirements. Two popular means of calculating the amount of calories a dog needs per day are the Waltham Formula (created by Burger in 1995) and the UC Davis Method. These can be very helpful, but unfortunately can only provide an estimate of a dog’s energy requirement as they cannot take into account individual variation nor the digestibility of the food which will supply these calories. All calories are not equal, and in human nutrition I am sure you have heard of “empty calories” which describes the energy provided by ingredients with poor nutritional profiles. In order to maintain optimal weight and condition it is not just the number of the calories ingested that is important; it is essential to provide calories from nutritionally valuable ingredients that the individual dog can utilise very easily.
There can be a huge variation in the amount of calories a dog needs; dependent not only on his actual weight and life stage, but also his desired weight, how much exercise he is taking, his temperament (stressed and anxious dogs burn more calories than placid dogs) and his individual metabolism. Using the Waltham Formula, a 20kg dog could require as few as 850 calories (if very inactive) to as many as 1655+ if very energetic. As you can see, this is quite some range and shows just how tricky it can be to establish exactly what is going to be optimal in cases where a dog is underweight.
If you have estimated your dog’s weight, and also the amount to feed, the scope for error is quite large, and can result in over or under-feeding by a significant quantity. The best method is to weigh your dog’s meals using kitchen scales. Do not make any drastic changes to the feeding quantity – changes should always be implemented gradually. Whilst wild dogs are natural scavengers and equipped for eating large amounts at times, our domestic dogs (especially large, deep-chested breeds) are more at risk from bloat if overly large meals are fed. Loose stools may also be a problem if the meal volume is increased suddenly.
Ingredients need to be high in quality, easily digestible and efficiently metabolised. Proteins, for example, should be of a high biological value – which means that they are easily broken down into the essential amino acids necessary for all the structural and metabolic functions within the body. Remember that different dogs thrive on different ingredients and what might be ideal for one is not always optimal for another. The nutrient balance of a feed is important too (i.e. the way in which the protein, fat and carbohydrate is proportioned).
Inappetance is a common cause of underweight dogs. Medical reasons for inappetance should always be ruled out first. Behavioural issues are very common, but require patience and perseverance to cure. A concentrated diet with more calories than regular maintenance feeds may be a good choice of diet for the discerning eater because the subsequently smaller feed portions are often more acceptable to dogs with a low appetite.
Encourage your dog to lead an active lifestyle with the minimum of stress. This is important for all dogs, but particularly so for growing youngsters. Puppies and young dogs (just like babies and children) need periods during the day when they are able to have stress-free rest and sleep, in order to keep in good condition and make steady growth. Not being able to get away from other dogs or children can be a major cause of lack of condition, poor growth or loose bowel action from continued excited activity. Some dogs are naturally highly-strung or exuberant and it is especially difficult in such animals to keep weight on them, as they are burning off calories as fast as we can supply them. These dogs will obtain particular benefits from the frequent feeding of small regular meals in order to promote more stable blood sugar and good serotonin levels with the aim of avoiding energy peaks and troughs.
Remember that building up a dog to peak health and condition can be time consuming. It is important to build up stamina and muscle tone as well as to increase the overall body weight. Controlled exercise is crucial, and lead exercise and swimming are preferable to free-running during the build-up period. Closely monitor your dog’s weight, appetite, general demeanour and stools. Weighing should be undertaken weekly in order to make any necessary gradual adjustments to the feeding volume, whilst stool production should be assessed daily.
Not only will this be helpful in stabilising energy levels, a small meal is more easily digested, absorbed and metabolised as the gut has less work to do at any one time. Small regular feeds also keep the digestive enzymes ticking over efficiently. Together these small but helpful actions should ensure that your dog will glean the maximum benefit from the nutrients in his food. Take care not to exercise too close to a mealtime because of the bloat risk. The metabolic rate is also faster following exercise, so allowing a decent amount of time for the dog to completely settle can mean the digestive processes will work more steadily and efficiently. If, despite care with volumes, food is ending up in an “in one end and out of the other” situation, then this can be a sign that the bile salts need a helping hand. It is the job of the bile salts to emulsify the food, and egg is a good emulsifier. A little raw egg added to each meal may be helpful, and several eggs per week for a large breed should not be problematic (unless there is any known pre-existing allergy to egg protein). One medium egg supplies around 75 additional calories too. (Egg whites do contain avidin which is a biotin inhibitor, but the yolks contain plenty of biotin ~ so whole eggs should not be a problem in moderation).
The addition of a non-dairy probiotic may help to aid absorption and assimilation of the nutrients at the lower end of the digestive tract. Boosting the friendly bowel flora may help unabsorbed nutrients be utilised better.