Many pet owners have to battle with the scales from time to time. While obese and overweight dogs are far too common, what if your dog has the opposite problem and actually needs to gain some healthy weight? Dogs can suddenly or gradually become underweight for many reasons. Perhaps they’re a recent rescue, recovering from medical issues, or simply craving different food for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. We’re here to help. This article includes reasons that your dog could be underweight, signs that your dog is at their ideal weight, and lots of strategies and healthy food ideas to plump your dog up.
First, Why Is Your Dog Underweight?
Helping your dog maintain a healthy weight is extremely important. It lets them live a longer, happier life, and a study by Banfield Pet Hospital showed that it could increase their lifespan by up to 2.5 years. Losing and gaining a couple pounds (or ounces) is normal, but there are some clear signs that a dog is underweight:
Visible ribs, hips, shoulders, or tail bones
Lower energy levels
Poor eating habits
Dull, dry, or shedding coat
If a dog is underweight, it can be a sign of a health problem because it may indicate malnourishment, digestive issues, dental problems, parasites, infections, or other underlying medical conditions that require attention and treatment. A healthy weight is essential for a dog's overall well-being, and owners should consult with a veterinarian if they suspect their dog is underweight.
These signs and symptoms are understandably worrisome, whether you’ve noticed a recent change in your dog’s weight or your dog has always been thin. Let’s walk through some of the most common reasons a dog might be losing weight:
Some dogs will eat just about anything, while others are harder to please. They may also be sensitive to taste, texture, meal times, and more. As we’ll cover later, you can find the way to your dog’s foodie heart with a little experimentation.
Stress or Anxiety
A week of spooky thunderstorms, strangers visiting, a new dog in the house, going to the groomer — stress-induced weight loss is another possibility. If there are known triggers for your dog’s anxiety, you can work with a dog trainer to minimize the effects.
Sickness or Injury
If your dog is losing weight or their appetite, there could be an underlying illness or injury you aren’t aware of. It’s a good idea to visit your veterinarian to eliminate medical causes such as diabetes, digestive issues, thyroid problems, or dental disease.
Too Much or Too Little Activity
Some dogs simply exercise so much they can’t keep the weight on, or they don’t eat enough high-protein food to compensate. On the other hand, dogs that don’t exercise much could have a reduced appetite.
Weight fluctuates naturally as your dog ages. Puppies have more fat, while adult dogs tend to lose weight the older they become due to changes in appetite, activity levels, sicknesses, and more.
If your dog is interested in food and eating full meals yet still losing weight, you might want to reevaluate how much you’re feeding. Remember that feeding guidelines are just suggestions and your dog may need bigger portions.
How To Tell if Your Dog Is a Healthy Weight
All breeds have a healthy weight range, and you can refer to a breed weight chart for a quick reference point. The trouble with this type of table is that many of our beloved pooches are mixed breeds, so that information isn’t all that useful or accurate. A better way to measure your dog’s weight is body condition scoring. It’s easy, applies to all breeds, and doesn’t require any special equipment. Basically, you feel and look at your dog’s body from multiple angles and then compare their profile to a scoring chart (example below). Follow these three steps (and it may be helpful to take pictures):
Rib check: Get your dog into a comfortable standing position and run both of your palms across their ribcage, one hand on either side. Notice how easily you can feel their ribs, spine, hips, and tail bones.
Profile check: Crouch level with your dog and view them from the side. See if their abdomen is tucked up, visibly curving upward from their rib cage. You may have to feel their abdomen area if their coat is in the way.
Overhead check: Look down at your dog from an overhead angle and check whether you can see their waist behind their ribs.
Then, compare your dog to the chart below. If your dog is a healthy weight, their ribs should be barely visible or not at all, and you should be able to feel their ribs without too much of a fat covering. Their abdomen should be tucked up toward their pelvis and their waist should have an hourglass shape.
7 Healthy Ways To Help a Dog to Gain Weight
Ready to help your dog reach their ideal weight? Use the tips below. Remember, none of these are overnight fixes. It’s important to make changes gradually, especially for very thin dogs or dogs that have been underweight for a while. The strategies we’ve selected will help you create a safe and sustainable weight gain plan for your dog.
1. Talk to Your Veterinarian
Your dog’s veterinarian is your partner in your dog’s health care, so talk to your vet before you make any changes regarding your dog’s weight. Ask your vet to perform a complete physical, as there are a number of diseases or health issues that could be affecting your dog’s weight loss or appetite.
You’ll want to rule out these factors prior to beginning a weight gain program. Your veterinarian can also give you an appropriate goal weight for your dog so you can reach milestones safely and celebrate every pound.
2. Keep a Health Journal
One of the best pieces of weight gaining advice we can give is to create a detailed health journal for your dog. Keep track of their daily meals and treats (including portion size and calorie count if possible), exercise routine, weight, and mood or behavior. With everything recorded in the journal, you can more easily connect cause with effect and understand which strategies are truly working. If their weight changes at the next weigh-in — gain or loss — simply flip back to your entries to see what happened. Land on a good change? Repeat it. Notice a worrying change? Document it and ask your vet.
3. Weigh Your Dog Regularly
Most weight loss programs for people recommend weekly weigh-ins, and the same applies to your canine. Weekly weigh-ins are an excellent tool because they allow you to clearly chart any gains, losses, or weight maintenance over time. Keep in mind that weighing more often — whether it’s every day or Monday, Wednesday, Friday — won’t help and will likely drive you crazy. Weight-building programs take time to take effect and holding a microscope to your dog won’t help. If you weigh in too often, you’ll start focusing on every calorie or play session, and that’s not healthy for you or your dog. Weekly weigh-ins are fine.
4. Choose a High-Quality Dog Food
To help a healthy but thin dog gain weight, build an eating plan that focuses on increasing your dog’s nutritional intake rather than simply pumping up the calories and fat. Adding too many calories or fat too quickly could cause digestive problems like vomiting, diarrhea, or inflammation of the pancreas. The best food for your dog is one that’s made with meats, eggs, vegetables, and fruits, while avoiding fillers like cereal grains, by-products, and meat meals. If your dog doesn’t have any grain allergies, I’d recommend The Honest Kitchen’s Organic Grain Chicken Recipe or Organic Grain Turkey Recipe. If your dog is intolerant to grains, Grain-Free Turkey and Grain-Free Beef are excellent alternatives
5. Feed Them Small Meals Often
Set up a feeding schedule so your dog eats three or four small meals each day rather than one or two large meals. This is a great weight-gaining tactic because small portions help your dog better digest their food and metabolize the nutrition throughout the day. To make this strategy work, try not to go more than six hours between meals. As you transition from larger meals to smaller ones, prepare one large, normal meal and then divide it into smaller meals to serve. This will help you understand how much you’re feeding until you get used to the new routine.
6. Incorporate Exercise
It may seem counterproductive to recommend exercise for a dog who needs to gain weight. After all, exercise burns calories, right? While that’s true, exercise is beneficial because it helps your thin dog build muscle mass and add bulk to their body. As an added bonus, the activity boost will increase their appetite. Just as you change your dog’s diet gradually, increase their exercise gradually as well. Sore muscles are no fun for anyone. If your dog hasn’t been exercising regularly, ask your veterinarian how much walking, running, and jumping they can safely do, then slowly increase the length or number of “workouts.”
7. Use Weight Gain Snacks
As we’ve mentioned, quality and quantity of food is key to helping your pooch add much-needed weight. Weight-gain snacks can be very helpful to supplement your dog’s meals. They add novelty and variety to their diet so they keep eating consistently (and jump up excitedly when you call them for meal time). These types of snacks are designed to be nutrient-dense, with ingredients that keep your dog feeling energized and reduce side effects of weight loss. That said, be mindful of calorie count and pay attention to the suggested age group so your pet isn’t getting too much or too little. We’ll go over some of the best weight-gain foods and snacks in the next section.
Make changes to your dog’s feeding and exercise routine gradually. Not only will this ease the transition for your dog, but it will help you change your schedule and habits as well. If your dog suddenly loses their appetite, vomits, has soft stools or diarrhea, or doesn’t want to run and play, call your veterinarian. Bring your dog’s journal to the exam so your veterinarian can understand the changes you’ve made and provide helpful guidance.
Best Dog Foods to Help Dogs Gain Weight
If you think it’s time for a change in diet, there are plenty of tasty meals, snacks, and treats to help your dog bulk up. It’s important to not only find something your dog likes, but that also contains all their essential nutrients. We’ll cover two categories: foods you can prepare at home and ready-made foods.
Organic Foods That Can Help With Weight Gain
These whole foods are convenient and easy to prepare, and what dog doesn’t love a bite of “human food”?
It’s hard to go wrong with protein like chicken, turkey, fish, and lean cuts of beef. Steaming, boiling, or roasting keeps the fat content low.
Sweet potatoes are the ultimate superfood for dogs and humans, with lots of Vitamin A for strong nerves, bones, and muscles. Start with small amounts of cooked, skinless sweet potatoes.
Dogs love peanut butter! Maybe they know it’s an excellent source of protein and healthy fats. Just be sure to avoid peanut butters with sweeteners like xylitol, which is toxic to dogs.
Pumpkins are hydrating, high in fiber, and also rich in Vitamin A and zinc. Plain, canned pumpkin is inexpensive and works well.
Foods That The Honest Kitchen Recommends
Take a look at these foods specially formulated to support the proper weight and diet for your canine.