I’m going to be sharing 22 tips for helping your old dog put on weight, but before we get started, you need to know the reason for the weight loss. If you already know, feel free to skip to the appropriate section, but if you don’t keep reading.
It’s not uncommon for an old dog to drop a bit of weight because his appetite changed, or gain because his activity level has dropped but not the type of food or his intake.
Assuming nothing has changed in terms of type of food and amount, weight loss is a concern. You can’t know if it’s due to aging or an underlying health condition, only your vet can tell you that.
What does it mean if a dog is losing weight?
Dogs can lose weight for 6 reasons:
- They’re not eating/not eating well
- Eating normally but still losing weight
- Came from an abusive home where food was denied
- Lost or stray and had to fend for himself
- Depression – over the loss of his animal friend for example
- Changed foods and you’ve been unintentionally underfeeding
If your dog is not eating or eating very little, possible causes are:
- You changed his food and he doesn’t like it
- Dental problems causing pain
- Kidney disease
- Cushing’s disease
- Liver disease
- Heart failure
- Recovering from surgery
- Has become a picky eater – possibly due to dementia
- Nausea (as a result of some of the conditions above)
- Pain (as a result of some of the conditions above)
- You’ve moved recently and he isn’t used to the new environment
- Another dog he lives with has become aggressive or is bothering him
- Changes within the home are causing him anxiety
If your dog is eating normally, but still losing weight possible causes are:
- Hormonal imbalance
- Difficulty breaking down food/trouble absorbing nutrients
- Underlying medical issues like those mentioned above
- Not eating a complete diet
- Not eating enough food
If your dog is malnourished because he was a stray or came from an abusive home:
If you got the dog from a shelter or rescue group, I’m assuming the dog will have been seen by a vet. If he hasn’t the first thing you must do is have him checked urgently. He could be suffering from some serious health issues.
Not eating because of depression:
Dogs can get depressed just like humans can, so it’s up to us to help get them through.
For helpful tips to get your dog feeling better and eating, read this ⇒ “10 Effective Ways to Treat Dog Depression.”
Your dog is losing weight due to being underfed:
You may have switched brands, and although you’re feeding him the same amount or what’s recommended on the package, it’s not enough. Because weight loss can happen gradually, you wouldn’t have realised it until it was obvious. Please don’t beat yourself up, it can be fixed. Start by feeding an extra meal, but check with your vet about whether this is really the best food. Also ask if adding some human food from the lengthy list below will help.
First step – make an appointment to see your vet
To make your appointment as productive as possible, make a list, in advance, of things you’ve been noticing and bring it with you.
This is what your vet will find helpful:
- How long ago you realised your dog was losing weight
- When you realised it, what did you do – add an extra meal for example
- Has your dog’s appetite changed? If yes, when and in what way
- Any other behaviour changes? Aggression, anxiety, whining…
- Drinking more
- Peeing more
During the appointment you’ll discuss your list, and your vet will weigh your dog. He will want to compare his current weight to previous numbers. It’s likely he will recommend blood and urine tests.
Once the test results come back, he will explain what he found, and draw up a treatment plan if necessary. If weight loss is a result of an underlying health condition, getting it under control can resolve the problem.
Since I will have no idea what diagnosis your dog gets, the rest of this post will be focusing on various tips to help a dog put on weight. They won’t all be right for your particular situation, so always consult with your vet before trying something new.
How do you put weight on an old dog?
Add an extra meal
If your dog only eats once a day, add a second meal. Twice daily feedings? Why not add a third! It’s better for digestion and he’ll eat more.
Give him canned food
If your dog has eaten dry kibble all his life, he may be fed up. Adding some canned food could add interest and entice him to eat more.
May have trouble reaching his bowl
Joint pain may be one reason your dog his having trouble reaching his bowl. Elevating it will make it easier to get to his food, but not too much so he has to stretch his neck.
Although my dog Red was small and didn’t have far to reach, I still elevated both her food and water bowls which made a difference in her comfort level.
Whether it’s gravy or freeze-dried chunks, add it to the top of food.
Make mealtime fun
I think it’s fair to say the most we do is plop the food in the bowl and put it on the floor. What if we made it more interesting and fun!
How about putting part of his meal in a Kong? It’s something new and he might like the challenge, and freezing it will make the fun and food last longer. Putting food in a puzzle toy will work too!
Helping your dog put on weight is more than just shoving extra calories down his throat. You know I don’t mean that literally…right? Scarfing down empty calories or adding too much fat to a diet can cause digestive issues, vomiting and even pancreatitis.
If feeding dog food opt for quality. That means –
- Avoiding by products
- Limited ingredients
- Ingredients you understand
- Protein as the first one on the list
Warm his food
I find warming the food slightly in the microwave makes it more palatable. It certainly does for my dogs.
Gradually increase your dog’s exercise
It may seem counter intuitive to exercise an already too thin dog, but you aren’t hiking miles with him for weight loss. Taking him out more often is not only needed for physical and mental wellbeing, it can also increase his appetite.
Change the bowl
Believe it or not, one of the tricks senior dog parents use to get their dogs to eat is to change the bowl. Maybe it’s a different material or shape, or it could be a plate instead. I used to feed Jack in a regular bowl, but I decided to try one with sections to see if it would make a difference. It did! I bought a pack of 3 in the baby section and it’s worked well ever since.
Try a new flavour
Most dog food ranges come in a variety of flavours. He may be tired of the same one and welcome a change.
Cut down on the treats
Plenty of dogs will ignore their food but practically inhale treats. If you’ve been giving your old dog a few too many treats lately, cut back. Also look at the quality. Many are nothing more than the doggie version of junk food. If he must get treats consider making them. There are tons of super easy recipes on Pinterest, and if he’s getting nutritious snacks it’s really just another version of his meal.
Hold the bowl or hand feed him
The confusion that goes along with dementia often affects your dog’s eating habits. They may not be able to find the bowl, or they find it but aren’t quite sure what to do.
A dog’s sense of smell can also be affected as he ages, and if he’s blind as well…
Holding the bowl up to mouth can make a big difference, and that’s what I used to do for Red. She was blind, but never had trouble finding her food until she got dementia and that was a more challenging situation.
Holding the bowl made things a lot easier.
Try a new brand
One of the reasons to switch brands is to avoid your dog developing food allergies, another is it could help keep him interested.
Never just start your dog on a new food, you have to change it over time to avoid stomach upset. Over the course of about a week, gradually add in the new food until he’s completed switched over.
Speak to your vet, or if he’s not that familiar with nutrition (as many aren’t), find a qualified and experienced canine nutritionist who will help. Keep your vet up to date on what you’re doing.
What human food can I give my dog to gain weight?
Adding human food will not only add more nutrition to your dog’s diet, it may also encourage him to eat more and then put on weight.
Here’s a list of some of the foods that are safe for dogs to eat –
(They may or may not be safe for your dog depending on any health issues he is experiencing, so check with your vet first.)
- Boiled chicken breast
- Sardines or mackerel in water
- Green beans
- Raw apple
- Cooked carrots
- Cottage cheese
- Scrambled eggs (no oil) but could top with a bit of cheese
- Canned pure pumpkin (not pie filling)
- Sweet potatoes
- Ground turkey
…and the list goes on because there are so many human foods dogs can eat.
One other thing that helps is freezing the chicken water in ice cube trays, then defrosting and adding to a meal.
Because I want to change up the protein source, I’m going to try organ meats and any other meat my dog doesn’t normally eat.
We just talked about adding human food, but what about cooking meals from scratch?
Ask your vet for ideas, or consult a canine nutritionist or holistic vet. They will offer the best advice about creating nutritionally balanced diets, and can recommend beneficial supplements that can be added.
You can find an unlimited number of recipes online, Pinterest as well as FB groups dedicated to home cooking. Again, you need to be sure they are nutritionally balanced so seek professional advice before you feed it to your dog.
One idea is to take some of the ingredients listed above and turn them into a stew. If you make a big batch, freeze for convenience.
Baking canned food
Another trick that works well for us is to bake the canned food. The length of time you bake it will depend on how soft or hard you want it.
To be honest I don’t know if it affects the nutritional quality of the food, so I would call the company. I mainly used this for treats as another way to help my dog gain weight.
Feed in a different location
A change of scenery may make a difference. If you always feed your dog in the kitchen, what about the dining room? If the weather is good how about in the backyard, or during a break from his walk in the park?
Hand feeding is another thing that has helped. I can’t say why, after all it’s the same food but the reason doesn’t matter as long as it works!
Slice up the salami style roll food
I have no idea what this type of dog food is called, but you’ve probably seen it in pet supply stores. They come in rolls like a salami. Anyway, cut them in pieces and feed it to your dog throughout the day. If he likes the taste, he may see it as a treat and be more inclined to eat it.
Whether you cut up a day’s supply or just enough for one meal depends on how well, or not, he’s eating.
Improve his digestive health
Some old dogs may have trouble digesting their food, so won’t be absorbing the nutrients they need. Adding things like prebiotics and probiotics can help, and it certainly helped my dog.
Ask your vet for recommendations, or ask other senior dog parents you know. Check with your vet to make sure the brand you’re considering is okay for your dog.
Stop feeding senior dog food
You’ll find most senior dog foods have a lower fat content than adult food. This is because old dogs are less active so need fewer calories to prevent obesity. Of course, plenty of old dogs are still very active and have plenty of energy so a senior dog food could make your already skinny dog’s problem worse.
The flip side of this is, if your dog has pancreatitis for example, low fat is what’s needed.
If your dog is happy on his current diet and you don’t want to take the chance he won’t like his new food, chat with your vet or canine nutritionist about what to add to make it more suitable for him.
Add more protein
Again, senior diets may contain lower protein levels due to the belief too much protein can affect the kidneys. It’s more about the quality of the protein rather than the amount.
Here is what petmd has to say about protein in an article called “How to Feed Older Dogs.”
“Older dogs can also have trouble maintaining their lean body (muscle) mass, and some senior dog foods contain less protein than those designed for young adults. I assume this choice is based on the misguided assumption that lower protein levels will protect an older dog’s kidneys from damage. In fact, many dogs actually need a little more protein in their diet as they age if they are to maintain a healthy lean body mass. Avoiding excess protein is important if a dog is in kidney failure, but research has shown that feeding reduced protein foods to older dogs “just in case” is a mistake.”