Malnourishment in Dogs: Signs & Symptoms

Just like humans, a dog requires vitamins and minerals in his diet to sustain normal body functioning. If a dog does not get these essential nutrients, he can fall victim to a number of different health issues, causing him to become weak, lethargic, or even threatened by death. Although most cases of malnourishment are the result of animal abuse, it can also be caused by several other lesser-known factors.

Caring for a malnourished dog may be difficult in the beginning. For starters, you have to closely monitor your pet to make sure there are no underlying health issues he is suffering from. Depending on the severity of the issue, the problem may be out of your control. If you find a dog that is to the point of starvation, he will most likely need medical assistance by a professional veterinarian.

If you own a dog and he continues to lose weight even though he has not had any changes in his diet or any other alterations in his lifestyle, he may be suffering from malnourishment due to an untreated health condition. You can be the best owner in the world; providing him with food, water, love, and plenty of playtime and he can still fall victim to malnourishment. That’s why it’s critical to be a proactive pet owner and keep an eye on any changes in your pet’s health or behavior on a regular basis.

This article will cover everything you need to know about the signs and symptoms of malnourishment in dogs. By educating yourself, you will be able to spot when your dog is malnourished or know how to treat a dog with a nutrient deficiency. Even though it may take a little extra attention and care to heal a malnourished dog, once he is able to recover, he can be a loving and playful companion for years to come.

What is Malnourishment in Dogs?


Malnourishment in dogs occurs when the animal is unable to receive or absorb proper nutrients in their body. This issue can be caused by a number of different problems including insufficient food consumption to internal health problems. Regardless of the issue, a malnourished dog can face severe consequences if left untreated.

As often seen in homeless or abandoned animals, the easiest sign of malnourishment in dogs is a skinny or emaciated appearance. If the body does not take in vital nutrients that it needs, normal body functioning will be compromised, causing many different side effects to occur.

Malnourished Dog Symptoms And Signs

A malnourished dog will show several identifiable signs when he is suffering from a nutrient deficiency. If an animal is displaying one or more of these symptoms below, it is highly suggested to take him to your local vet for further examination. Keep in mind the sooner you are able to uncover the underlying cause, the faster your pup can receive treatment, therefore limiting his risk of developing irreversible side effects in the long run. Any unusual symptoms your dog may be experiencing should be addressed to your vet during the diagnosis process. This information can be a vital component when researching your dog’s condition.

Weight loss

As previously stated, serious weight loss is the most identifiable symptom that occurs in malnourished dogs. When a dog is not being fed enough, his body is unable to sustain a healthy weight, therefore causing him to become underweight. It is fairly easy to tell if your dog is at a healthy weight or not. If you notice his rib bones protruding, that is a good sign that he is malnourished. To verify that this is the case, your vet can do a quick examination to see if your dog is at a healthy weight or not.

Skin Issues

One of the lesser-known symptoms of malnutrition is canine skin issues. Some animals that are suffering from a health condition will experience redness, irritation, or even hair loss. That’s why you should always get in the habit of examining your dog’s skin during every grooming session or belly rub. Dandruff is another skin problem that can be present when a dog is unable to utilize nutrients in their body. Any skin reaction or abnormality should be analyzed by your veterinarian, even if symptoms seem minor.

Digestive Issues

Gastrointestinal problems is always a good indication that your dog is suffering from an illness. Notice if your dog is having inconsistent bowel movements, gas, or diarrhea on a regular basis. Digestive issues in dogs are a very broad symptom and can be a side effect of endless canine health issues in general. That’s why if your pup is experiencing tummy issues it’s probably a good idea to get him checked out by a professional.

Bad Breath

Most dogs are not known for being overly hygienic, especially if he enjoys rolling around in the dirt or eating straight out of the garbage can. While a little bit of a stinky smell is okay for some dogs, if they smell pungent or foul, this could be a sign of an infection. Not only can they have a general odor on the body, but they can also have bad breath as well. Pay attention to your dog’s scent and if it starts to get out of hand, take him in for further testing. Regardless if he has a health condition that is causing this problem to occur or not, your vet can at least give you some helpful pointers to mitigate the issue.

Coat Health

Did your dog have a beautiful, soft coat that all-of-a-sudden turned dull and brittle? If so, that could mean that he is malnourished. Dogs that are unable to get enough vitamins and minerals will often experience changes in his coat, coloring, or texture. You should also keep an eye out for a thinning of the coat or hair loss in general. As you could probably assume, these are not normal signs your dog should be experiencing if he is strong and healthy. You know your dog better than anyone else, so if you see him losing hair, excessively shedding, or having a physical change in his coat health, that usually means it’s time to take a trip to the veterinarian.

Weakened Immune System

Is your dog always sick? Does he seem more lethargic than normal? These are all signs of a weakened immune system. Poor nutrition will compromise an immune system, making your dog more susceptible to getting sick. Animals with a weakened immune system are unable to fight off bacteria and infections that a healthy dog would be unharmed by. These dogs will also have a more difficult time recovering from an illness. A weakened immune system is never a good sign, especially when our four-legged friends are unable to communicate how he is feeling.

Causes of Malnourishment in Dogs

Although most cases of malnourishment are from insufficient food intake, there are still many other causes that can lead to this health problem. These causes may vary slightly in signs and symptoms, but regardless of the issue, the animal will need to be taken care of as quickly as possible. Some of the leading causes of malnutrition in dogs include:

Low-quality Diet

Just like humans, dogs require a nutritious diet full of vitamins and minerals to stay happy and healthy. When a dog’s diet is missing these components, he will begin to show symptoms of malnourishment. Keep in mind that not all dog foods are created equal. Some products contain very little nutritional value or are hiding harmful ingredients. In order to prevent using these types of products, consult with your veterinarian for further recommendations. Your vet will be able to suggest a specific product that works best for your pet and outline how much your furry friend should be eating on a daily basis.


One of the most common causes of malnourishment in dogs is parasites. As said before, you can be doing everything right by taking your dog on daily walks and feeding him nutritious food, and he can still become malnourished. That’s because when an animal has a parasite infestation, his body is unable to absorb the nutrients in their food, therefore causing a nutrient deficiency. If you assume your dog has parasites, he will also show symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, or an expanded abdomen. Keep an eye out for these signs and if your dog begins to exhibit one or more symptoms, take him in for further testing.


If a dog is not consuming enough food, he will eventually become malnourished. While no owner would purposely do this to their beloved companion, some rescue dogs that have been abandoned or abused may already have a nutrient deficiency as soon as you bring him home. Dogs who have been underfed will show signs of canine lethargy, will appear skinny, and can even develop further health complications if gone untreated. If your dog appears to be skinnier than the average, make sure you ask your vet for specific instructions on how much and how often you should be feeding your pup.

Health Conditions

If the issue is not caused by underfeeding, parasites, or a poor diet, chances are pretty high that your dog has a more serious underlying health condition. Intestinal tumors, irritable bowel disease, and several other problems can all cause malnutrition in dogs. Generally, if this happens, the dog will also be experiencing some accompanying symptoms as well. If your dog begins to act strange, has a change in coat health, or is experiencing an uncommon behavior, take him to the vet for a thorough analysis. Once there, your vet will be able to run a series of tests to identify any possible health conditions that may be inflicting your furry companion.

How to Diagnose Malnutrition in Dogs

If you suspect your dog is malnourished, schedule a trip to your vet as soon as possible. Your vet will first start off the diagnosis process by running through a series of standard tests to study the overall health of your dog. A complete blood count, a urinalysis, and a biochemistry profile are usually ordered to see your dog’s overall state of health. At this time, make sure you inform your vet of any other symptoms your dog has been experiencing thus far. This information can serve as a critical factor that can help significantly during the diagnosis stage. Depending on the suspected illness or problem, your vet may continue the testing process if they deem it to be necessary.

In cases where you have rescued an animal and he is clearly malnourished, talk to your vet for further recommendations. In severe situations where the dog is extremely weak or in a fragile state, your vet may need to start a more aggressive treatment plan through intravenous fluids. This will help your dog get back to a more stable condition.

How to Treat a Malnourished Dog

Once your vet is able to uncover your dog’s underlying health issue, he can recommend a treatment plan that caters to your dog’s specific needs. Treatment may vary depending on your dog’s condition and cause of malnourishment. If your pup has parasites, your vet will recommend a deworming product. For cases that are more severe, intensive treatment may be necessary.

While your dog is recovering, make sure he is going to the vet for regular check-ups as often as possible. Use this time to talk to your vet and find out the best ways to treat and care for your malnourished dog. If you notice your dog’s health decreasing or staying the same, his treatment may need to be adjusted.

Just remember, as soon as you can spot any changes in your dog’s health, the faster he can get treatment. Use your vet as your number one resource for any questions or concerns regarding your furry companion’s health. The best thing you can do as an owner is to be proactive and observant of your dog and act accordingly if necessary. Once your dog makes a full recovery from his malnutrition problem, he can go right back to his playful and loving self.



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  3. Tumbarello, Elizabeth. “Symptoms of Malnutrition in Dogs.” Cuteness, 9 Feb. 2017, Accessed 23 April 2018.
  4. “Signs of Poor Nutrition.” Dogs Life , 5 Sept. 2013, Accessed 23 April 2018.
  5. Jaret, Peter. “Nutrition and Aging: 7 Signs of Inadequate Nutrition.” WebMD, Accessed 23 April 2018.

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