How to fatten up your dog

Most people assume fattening up a dog means feeding them more dog food, which is usually why they fail.

Fattening up your underweight dog isn’t as easy as feeding them more food. In fact, your current dog food could possibly be the reason your dog is underweight, and there are multiple reasons why.

In most cases it’s more about feeding the right food, and you’ll be forgiven if pet food companies have misled you in this respect.

Let’s start with a resounding quote. It’s from the controversial documentary The Magic Pill, sadly removed from Netflix due to… “conflicts of interest”… or something like that, but it’s one of the best quotes I’ve heard in regard to healthy weight in dogs:

When you look at every other species on our planet, they all control their weight automatically. The only exception was us and any animal unfortunate enough to be fed by us.

The Magic Pill, Australian documentary film directed by Rob Tate on Ketogenic diets, 2017.

In my experience, most overweight dogs are fed brands of dog food which favour carbohydrates, particularly cereal grains, often combined with lack of exercise. I find the same foods can cause dogs to be underweight as well, for the simple reason they are nutritionally inappropriate.

Feeding your dog the right diet will help them retain a healthy weight naturally, but there are other important factors to consider.

In short, you should consider the following before attempting to fatten up your dog:

  • Why they are currently underweight
  • Their age and breed
  • Exercise
  • Lifestyle
  • The possibility of underlying illness

In this guide to fattening up your dog we’ll cover the following:

Is your dog underweight, and if so, by how much?

Firstly, let’s determine how much your dog is underweight, or whether they actually are underweight.

Believe it or not, many raw feeders having transitioned from kibble raise a concern their dog has lost a lot of weight, when a quick evaluation shows the dog has simply returned to a more natural weight having been previously overweight.

This weight chart should give you a good idea. Is your dog in category 1, 2, ….or 3?

Dog Weight Chart
Weight Chart, source: Imgur

The weight chart above is mostly applicable to Labradors, but you can gauge how underweight your dog is by accounting for age and breed. Some breeds naturally have lean builds with the appearance of being underweight, even when they’re perfectly healthy – this includes Greyhounds, Whippets, Salukis, and Basenjis.

If you’re unsure what weight category your dog is in, it’s worth getting a check-up from your vet and specifically discuss the issue.

Vital consideration: Why is your dog underweight?

There are many reasons why a dog becomes underweight. To successfully fatten up your dog it’s very important to understand the reason or reasons why.

Here are a few of the most common reasons dogs are underweight:

  • Taken home as a rescue – Many rescue dogs have suffered from previous ownership, and only mildly recover in a shelter environment based on food (and type of food) available.
  • Underlying illness – We’ll look at this in more detail shortly as underlying illness can often be the cause of a dog to lose weight. Attempting to fatten up your dog without addressing any underlying illness will never work.
  • Poor diet – I’m sure you feed your dog a good, healthy food. Or at least you may think so. In my experience, many commercial dog foods aren’t as good, or healthy, as the marketing leads you to believe. There’s no reason to feel guilty if that’s the case, as pet food marketing departments are among the best in the world. A dog can suffer pain (such as gastrointestinal pain) on a dog food, and even though you may not realise it, this can put them off eating that food.
  • Dietary sensitivities – This can be hand in hand with a poor diet. Ingredients such as cereals or poor quality meat may cause your dog discomfort, causing them to lose their appetite. Some dogs have intolerances to ingredients which would normally be suitable, such as chicken, lamb, eggs, and so forth.
  • Age – Although senior dogs are more prone to changes in weight and build, you should always consider illness and diet as a possible cause as well as just old age.

If your dog has been a healthy weight for many years and has recently dropped in weight, ask yourself why, or seek advice from your vet.

Has your dog’s diet changed recently, or their appetite? Are they displaying any other symptoms, such as lethargy, vomiting, or excessively eating grass?

Health reasons which cause a dog to lose weight

As a pet nutritionist I focus on the affects of diet and type of diet when it comes to weight changes in dogs. However, if your dog has noticeably lost weight within recent weeks then you should always consider health issues and raise any concerns with your vet.

Here are a few reasons why a dog may lose weight due to a health condition. Have a read through, then make notes of any potential factors:

  • Dental problems – Your dog’s teeth should always be clean and free of plaque and tartar. Sadly many dogs fed commercial pet foods, both dry and wet, suffer dental decay and what vets refer to as “silent pain”. Often we don’t realise our dogs are suffering dental pain, but this can commonly cause a lack of appetite. Take a look at your dog’s teeth – what condition are they in?
  • Parasites – Worms (such as roundworms and hookworms) are a common cause of weight loss in dogs. Fleas and ticks can also cause weight loss through both stress and absorption of nutrients.
  • Gastrointestinal issues – This can be diet related, or caused by illness or infections. Antibiotics and other medicines can also affect the gut and cause changes in eating habits.
  • Cancer, diabetes, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, liver disease, heart disease, and other illnesses can all cause weight loss in dogs. Many of these illnesses can be diet related, which brings me back once again to the importance of diet (and always considering diet as a potential cause).
  • Stress and anxiety – Sometimes there are obvious causes of anxiety, other times we may not be aware of a change which is causing our dogs to feel stressed. This may include moving house, new pet, neighbour’s dog invading territory, or stress caused by some of the other factors on this list. Stress and anxiety can affect a dog’s appetite and cause weight loss.
  • Medications – This should be easy to rule out, but if your dog has recently been under medication or antibiotics then this should be considered as a possible cause.
  • Old age – Age affects eating habits, as do “senior” dog foods which cut down protein and fat (when perhaps they shouldn’t). Sometimes weight changes in senior dogs can be minimised with a better diet, other times they can’t.
  • Underfeeding or malnutrition – Maybe you’re not feeding your dog enough food, but this could be caused by poor quality or inappropriate food (don’t assume a dog food is safe and healthy because it has “dog food” written on the bag amongst alluring marketing claims).

I’ll add one more point to the list – competing for food with other pets. A dominant dog may steal another dog’s food. Sometimes we fail to realise one dog is afraid to approach food with another dog in the house, which we can overlooked as not being hungry. Don’t assume a larger dog will be the most dominant either, as quite often it’s the smaller dog… or cat.

Why you shouldn’t cut down on exercise or feed your dog more food

It’s easy to assume less exercise and more food will fatten up our dogs. Yes, it may work, but is it the right way of tackling the problem?

Consider the following:

  • Your dog doesn’t like the food you’re giving him, or the food isn’t as nutritious as you may think. Do you think feeding more of that food will help your dog return to a healthy weight and condition?
  • Your dog is suffering dental or gastrointestinal pain which you aren’t aware of, so you cut down their exercise to help fatten them up. Doesn’t sound ideal, does it?

For reasons such as this, simply cutting down exercise or feeding more food probably isn’t the ideal solution.

Address diet before reducing exercise, and make sure your dog isn’t suffering from any of the health conditions mentioned above.

If your dog is otherwise healthy, with a diet you know to be healthy, and you’ve run any concerns by your veterinarian, then this is when – and only when – you look at feeding them more to help fatten them up.

How to fatten up your dog with food

There are various ways you can fatten up your dog with food.

You can:

  • Switch to a higher calorie dog food – Many brands offer a higher calorie formula, and some offer a weight gain specific formula.
  • Switch to a dog food which is more appropriate – i.e. more animal proteins, fats, and less carbohydrates/sugars.
  • Supplement your dog food with other foods – This can be canned foods, raw, BARF, or calorie-dense and appropriate fresh foods such as meats or oily fish.
  • Feed smaller meals, more frequently – This can be better than two big meals a day. Feeding smaller meals more frequently can increase your dog’s calorie intake without putting stress on their digestive system.
  • Add high-calorie snacks – As a general rule keep snacks and treats to 10% of your dog’s diet max, and try and keep those treats as appropriate as possible. Sugary dog treats made of cereals and glycerin may fatten up your dog, but ask yourself if this is optimal. It’s not. There are plenty of decent quality animal-based treats available in Australia.

Always monitor the food you feed your dog, and adjust portion sizes as necessary. Personally I pay little attention to feeding guidelines on a packet, and instead focus on feeding the right kind of foods and letting the dog naturally return to a healthy weight.

Human foods you can give your dog to help fatten them up

I feed my pets a variety of foods, but I also have confidence that I’m feeding them enough of the nutrition they need. Most of the food I feed them has nutritional benefit, be it protein, fat, vitamins, or minerals, which I know will benefit them.

Dogs need a balance of nutrients (mostly from animal sources including organs and bones), and moderation is often an important consideration over the long term.

If you have any concerns, keep human foods limited to 10% of your dog’s diet (this is inclusive of treats).

Never feed a human food unless you know it’s safe for your dog, and do not feed any human food in excess if you feel this may be a risk.

Here are some human foods you can give to your dog to help fatten them up:

  • Meats (raw, or cooked if you are wary of raw meats)
  • Organs (kidney, heart, liver in moderation)
  • Appropriate raw meaty bones (these will also help your dog retain better dental health)
  • Eggs (nature’s best food source)
  • Plain yoghurt (unsweetened)
  • Cottage cheese or other real cheese (never mouldy/aged cheese, and avoid processed cheese)
  • Peanut butter (the real stuff, and definitely not peanut butter sweetened or made with xylitol which is toxic to dogs)
  • Fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel)
  • Sweet potatoes or oats (in moderation)
  • Pumpkin

Please note: If your dog has been on a single brand of dog food for any length of time it is likely intolerances have built up. Adding unusual ingredients to their diet may cause stomach upset, so introduce new foods gradually and make sure you monitor for any reactions.

How to fatten up a dog with pancreatitis

Fattening up a dog with pancreatitis offers further challenges, but your first step should be assessing the dog food you have fed them until this point – What was it made from? Was it appropriate for your dog as a meat-eater?

You may view your dog as a carnivore, omnivore (like “science” would suggest), or somewhere in-between, but facts are facts and dogs digest animal ingredients more efficiently than the plants or grains most dog foods are packed with.

If you don’t address any issues with diet, you won’t succeed moving further.

It is better to feed your dog smaller meals more regularly, rather than big meals twice a day.

Meat and other animal ingredients are better for your dog than carbohydrates, and for a dog suffering pancreatitis you will need to find a balance of suitable foods which will benefit their health and not worsen their condition. The severity of the pancreatitis will be a key factor moving forwards, and keeping your vet in the loop is essential.

I mentioned earlier in this article how human foods can be used as supplements to help fatten up a healthy dog, and this can help with your dog too. You may need to be more selective with types of meat and try not to overdo it with plant or carbohydrate-based foods. Lean meats will be a better initial option, an take tentative steps.

Here are some human foods you can use to help fatten your dog with pancreatitis:

  • Boiled lean meats, such as boiled chicken, turkey, or kangaroo
  • Boiled whitefish
  • Boiled eggs
  • Low-fat cottage cheese
  • Cooked or boiled sweet potato
  • Boiled and mashed pumpkin

If you didn’t read the previous section, then I will add the same note:

Please note: If your dog has been on a single brand of dog food for any length of time it is likely intolerances have built up. Adding novel ingredients to their diet may cause stomach upset, so introduce new foods gradually and make sure you monitor for any reactions.

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David D'Angelo

David D'Angelo has worked as a scientist since graduating with a BSc (Hons) in 2000. In addition, David holds a CPD accredited Diploma in Pet Nutrition as well as being CPD accredited VSA (Veterinary Support Assistant). However, his experience and involvement in the pet food industry for 15+ years has given true insight into pet food, formulations, science, research, and pet food marketing. Facebook | LinkedIn | Instagram | Pinterest

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