Signs of Malnutrition in Dogs

Unfortunately, a malnourished dog is often the consequence of abuse. With that being said, however, a dog can still become malnourished if he has been fed an improper diet or if he has an underlying health issue that has yet to be addressed.

If you have recently rescued a dog who is suffering from malnutrition, know that you are potentially saving an animal’s life. These fragile creatures may need some extra love and attention in the beginning, but will eventually become a strong companion with your assistance. The best thing you can do as your dog’s owner is to educate yourself on how to care and treat a malnourished animal so you can provide him with the best care possible.

This article will cover all the possible malnutrition in dogs symptoms as well as the potential causes. By the end of this article, you will be able to spot a dog who is suffering from a nutrient deficiency and can then provide him with the proper treatment needed for recovery. Always remember, if you assume that your dog may be in a life or death situation regarding his state of health, seek professional care as soon as possible.

What is Malnutrition in Dogs?

Malnutrition in dogs occurs when the animal has a nutrient deficiency in their body. This issue is commonly seen in homeless dogs or animals that have been abused by their previous owners. When an animal is not consuming the necessary vitamins and minerals he requires for strong health, he will become skinny or emaciated, showing very little body fat.

As said before, the causes of malnutrition can be diverse. While of course, your dog’s diet can be the underlying issue, it can also be brought on by different health problems as well. That’s why it is absolutely necessary to take your dog to the vet if he appears to be losing weight or showing other visible symptoms of malnourishment. The sooner your dog gets treatment, the faster he will be able to go back to his jolly, go-lucky self.

Signs of Malnutrition in Dogs

In most cases, an owner should be able to tell that their pet is suffering from a nutrient deficiency, especially in a severe stage. If you are a dog owner, always keep on eye out for any changes in behavior, appearance, or coat health. Although these may seem like minor signs, this is how an animal’s body will react when he is suffering from a health problem. Below are some of the most common signs that a dog is malnourished.

Gastrointestinal issues

A dog who is suffering from malnutrition will likely show issues with their gastrointestinal system as well. Canine diarrhea, gas, or irregular bowel movements can all occur when a dog is not taking in the proper nutrients he requires. An animal may also experience pain while attempting to defecate. In more severe cases, an animal will throw up bile or other material when his body is malnourished. Gastrointestinal issues is never a good sign, which is why you should seek help as soon as possible.

Physical appearance

One of the easiest ways to tell if a dog is malnourished is through his appearance. With proper food and exercise, an animal will be able to maintain a healthy weight. Vets have a test they use to help them determine a dog’s health by their appearance. These guidelines are previously set and are used to determine if a dog is at a healthy weight or not. If a dog’s bones are visible and he appears to be emaciated, he will have a score of a one. In these cases, it is critical that the animal is treated and carefully looked after while he recovers.

Prone to Health Issues

If your dog needs to be constantly taken to the veterinarian for a different illness every week, that means his immune system has been compromised in some way. In cases of malnutrition, a dog’s body will be unable to fight against viruses and other harmful bacteria if he doesn’t have sufficient nutrients in his body.

Not only will a dog be more prone to health issues, but he will also have a more difficult time recovering from their ailments. Malnourished dogs can even come down with other health problems that normal, healthy dogs would be able to fight on their own.  

Coat Health

A common red flag that a dog has a nutrient deficiency is changes in his coat health. If you notice that your dog has patchy, red, irritated, or flaky skin, that usually means he is hiding an underlying health condition. The texture of his coat can even change from soft to rough and appear to be dull.

As a dog owner, you should always be checking your four-legged friend for any bald spots or areas of irritation. Aside from malnutrition, the state of your dog’s health is often reflected through his coat. If you spot any abnormalities in his fur, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian for further testing.

Changes in Overall Behavior

If a dog is not getting enough nutrients to sustain his body, he may experience a generalized weakness and show signs of lethargy. Malnourished dogs will refrain from running, walking, or any other activity. Not even a game of catch or tug-of-war will make these pups happy. A dog may even become depressed or develop some type of mental disorder such as canine anxiety.

If a dog is experiencing these symptoms, he will usually have a strange behavior and an overall change in mood. A shift in your pet’s behavior is never a good sign, especially if he is showing symptoms of depression. If you notice these changes in your pet, it is highly advised to take him to a professional for further examination.

Causes of Malnutrition in Dogs

As already discussed, malnutrition can be brought on by many different issues. Of course, the main cause of malnutrition is due to a lack of diet, but there are other conditions that can also lead to malnourishment in some cases as well. Regardless what the underlying cause is, it is imperative that an animal is treated right away. The longer a dog suffers from a lack of nutrients, the higher the chance he will develop secondary health problems as a result. Below are the main causes of nutrient deficiency in dogs.


The leading cause of malnutrition in dogs is the result of underfeeding. If you recall from an earlier section, it was already mentioned that most animals who are malnourished have been either abandoned or abused. Just like in humans, dogs who are being underfed will begin to lose weight. Once this happens, your dog will become lethargic, weak, and more susceptible to other illnesses.

Medical Disorders

Unfortunately, you can be feeding your dog the recommended amount, take him for daily walks, and provide him with all the love and attention in the world and he can still become malnourished. How could this be? Well, dogs can actually become malnourished by an underlying medical disorder. From intestinal tumors to irritable bowel disease, dogs with the best care can still fall victim to a nutrient deficiency if another health condition is present.

Low-Quality Diet

“You are what you eat” doesn’t just apply to humans. If your dog is consuming low-quality food that is full of harmful ingredients, he isn’t getting the necessary vitamins and minerals that are needed to support healthy body functioning. Some of the biggest dog food companies can have the worst ingredients, which is why you should always consult with your veterinarian before feeding your dog a new product.

Your vet will be able to recommend the proper food for your pup and also suggest the recommended amount that’s specific to your animal. Every animal has different nutritional needs based on his age, activity level, and size. Use your vet as your number one resource for any questions regarding your dog’s diet.


Did you know a parasitic infection can cause a nutrient deficiency in your dog’s body? Although several parasites can cause malnutrition in your furry friend, tapeworm in the most likely suspect. In the case of parasites, a dog is unable to properly absorb the nutrients he consumes, which means he can consume a healthy diet and still become malnourished.

If you assume your dog may be suffering from this type of infestation, take him to the vet for a proper diagnosis. Once there, your vet will be able to run specific testing to identify the type of parasite that’s inflicting your dog. Once your pet has received a proper diagnosis, your vet will then be able to recommend a treatment plan for his specific needs.


Even though it might seem counterintuitive, a dog can also suffer from poor nutrition if he is overfed. While just the extra calories alone will do its damage, the nutrients in the food can also be too much for a dog’s body to handle. Certain vitamins and minerals like vitamin A can actually do more harm than good in an excess amount. Once again, this is why it is extremely important to talk to your vet and find out your dog’s recommended food amount per day. If you notice your dog is gaining weight, make a stop at your local veterinarian for further analysis.

How to Care For a Malnourished Dog

First things first: if you assume your dog has a nutrient deficiency, take him to the vet as soon as possible. Even if their symptoms are minor, it is still recommended to get them checked out by a professional. From there, your vet will run several tests to identify the cause of your dog’s issues. If it is a parasitic infection or another underlying health issue, your vet may want to continue further testing.

In severe cases that your dog needs immediate medical attention, he may be given intravenous fluids or other supportive treatment. If the underlying cause came from low-quality food intake, your vet can recommend a proper food product that caters to your dog’s age, size, and activity level.

If you have just rescued an abused dog and he appears to be a bag of bones, do not feed him an excessive amount in the beginning. Sometimes a starving dog will have negative side effects when given too much food early on since his body is unable to absorb the proper amount of nutrients. Professionals recommend feeding the dog several small meals a day that is high in protein and nutrient-rich. Keep in mind that you should always have a bowl of fresh, clean water readily available at all times.

As your dog begins to recover, continue going to the vet for regular check-ups, especially while he is in a vulnerable state. The best thing you can do is to work with your vet to ensure your dog is recovering and receiving the necessary care he needs. The sooner you are able to address your dogs nutrient deficiency, the faster you can get them back to a happy, healthy life.

Malnutrition can be a serious threat to your dog. If left untreated, irreversible damage or even death can result. That’s why it is imperative that you get to the vet at the first sign of malnutrition. Just remember, if your dog is experiencing a change in behavior, has gastrointestinal issues, or has a change in his coat, that could be because he is malnourished. Do not wait until his symptoms have worsened; err on the side of caution and seek professional assistance immediately.  

If you notice any of these symptoms present in your dog, try to spot any other signs of illness. Although a simple change in his diet can do the trick, in some cases like canine cancer or a parasitic infection, the vet will need to create a more aggressive treatment plan. Once your dog is at the vet, explore potential changes you should be making in your pet’s diet or exercise regimen. By being proactive and observant with your dog’s health, you will be able to do everything in your power to keep him happy and healthy for years to come.

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