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Why Unexplained Weight Loss Is So Dangerous For Your Dog

Updated on November 1, 2016
DrMark1961 profile image

Dr. Mark is a veterinarian in Brazil. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.

Weight loss most commonly occurs with poor food and dental disease.
Weight loss most commonly occurs with poor food and dental disease. | Source

Why is weight loss the sign of a dangerous problem?

If you are one of those people feeding a very low quality food, unless your dog has access to other food sources you may be starving him without even realizing it. Some dogs will even stop eating a cheap food that does not taste good.

Unlike cats, they will not starve themselves to death, but they can become thin and weak if the food is very bad.

The solution? Switch your dog to a better diet right away. I recommend feeding a raw diet, a natural whole food like nature intended. Feeding a paleo diet is not expensive if you do not buy the “prepackaged” commercial raw foods sold in plastic.

There are a lot of benefits to a natural whole diet and dogs enjoy the taste.

It is also possible that your dog is not getting enough food, even if it is good quality. Watch the dog when he eats. Does he have at least 15 minutes to eat his food? Is there another dog in the household taking over the bowl before he even finishes?

If the food is okay, and you are sure he is getting enough to eat every day, the first thing to do is check his teeth. Are there any broken teeth, swelling in the gums, or a pus discharge when you press down on his gums? If your dog has any of these dental problems, he is probably in pain and needs to see his vet right away.

The most common causes of losing weight, then, are:

  • Feeding a low quality food, even if it is only missing one vital nutrient
  • Not getting enough food
  • Dental problems that make it hard for him to eat

Common causes of weight loss when the dog is eating enough food

Chronic infection
Protein losing diseases
Elevated metabolic rate
When your dog starts losing weight, seek help immediately since some things can be helped.
When your dog starts losing weight, seek help immediately since some things can be helped. | Source

1. Chronic infection: A chronic infection can be something as simple and easy to treat as worms, something more serious like heartworms or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or even something like a chronic skin infection that your dog is using all of his energy to combat.

Sometimes a dog with a chronic infection will appear normal. Like most of the diseases that cause weight loss, your dog will need to be diagnosed through simple blood work before he can be treated. An elevated white blood cell count will tell the vet that your dog has an infection, even if it is not obvious at the first examination. A stool sample might be checked for worms, and even his skin might need to be scraped and examined under a microscope to check for mange.

2. Diabetes: Besides losing weight, one of the common symptoms of diabetes in dogs is excessive thirst. With excessive thirst, of course, the dog will have to urinate excessively, and it is unlikely that he will be able to hold his urine all night. If your dog is having “accidents”, even after being housetrained, the first thing to do is have a physical exam and blood work.

Diabetes is only one of the problems that can cause excessive thirst and urination.

Diabetes is most frequently diagnosed in older dogs, and usually in females. If your dog is losing weight and having accidents, be sure to get her in to your vet for a physical exam and blood test today.

3. Kidney disease: One of the ways in which chronic kidney disease causes weight loss is called “protein losing nephropathy”. The kidneys leak, and protein molecules spill out into the urine. No matter how much a dog eats, he cannot keep enough protein in his system to remain healthy, and without proper treatment he will waste away.

Some other internal organs can also cause weight loss when they fail. The heart is one example of this, so all dogs with weight loss will have their chests examined to rule out “cardiac cachexia”.

All of these diseases can be discovered by a simple physical exam and blood work.

4. Cancer: This disease can strike in many different ways, but one thing you can watch out for is weight loss. The tumor or tumors starts drawing away the nutrients that the dog needs to keep the rest of his body healthy.

Diagnosing cancer can be difficult, but when it is found early the chances of treatment are a lot better. By the time your dog is losing weight, it may have already spread, so get your dog checked out right away.

5. Maldigestion/Malabsorption: Several different diseases can cause a dog to lose weight despite a healthy, even voracious, appetite. Dogs will have diarrhea and light yellow stools several times per day. Sometimes it will smell especially foul, like when dogs are suffering from Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth.

When the pancreas is destroyed, no enzymes are released into your dog´s GI tract and he can suffer from maldigestion/malabsorption. All of the important nutrients that your dog eats every day pass right through his GI tract and are never absorbed. Some dogs can also be sensitive to gluten and the little “fingers” (villi) in the small intestine die off and no longer absorb the nutrients passing through the GI tract.

Although dogs with maldigestion and malabsorption can have diarrhea and light yellow stools, that symptom alone is not enough to diagnose the problem. Like many other diseases that cause weight loss, he will need to have a physical exam from your vet and when the problem is recognized his stool can be looked at under a microscope and his blood tested for digestive enzymes. Some dogs even need a biopsy of the intestine before this problem can be diagnosed.

Source: Ettinger and Feldman: Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 6th edition, St. Louis, 2005, Saunders

The best way to treat weight loss in a dog is:

See results

What can I do at home?

There is not a lot you can do at home until you have learned what is causing your dog´s weight loss.

If your dog is healthy, think about the quality of the food you are giving him.

But how do you know your dog is healthy? If he is urinating excessively, having loose stools when you take him out, is straining when he does need to go or having accidents in the house, there is something abnormal going on.

If you own a dog but cannot provide him with medical care even after he starts having diarrhea, you can try feeding him plain yogurt to change the flora of the GI tract.

Many other medical problems will respond to a diet change, but cannot be treated at home until you know what is wrong. If your dog is gluten sensitive, and you change him to a high fiber diet with a lot of gluten, do you think he is going to get better?

If you have any doubts, go ahead and take him in to your vet for a physical exam and blood work.

A sick dog can lose weight fast. Find out what is wrong now!
A sick dog can lose weight fast. Find out what is wrong now! | Source

You can see from this list that there are a lot of reasons for why your dog is losing weight. None of them can really be dealt with at home until you find out what is going on. Even if you can tell what is going on, unless you have a specific diagnosis you are not helping him out by trying alternative treatments.

There are several different methods to treat your dog´s weight loss naturally. In order to start any treatment plan at home, however, you need to find out what is wrong.

If your dog is losing weight, do something about it now.

© 2014 Dr Mark


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    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 3 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

      Thanks, Jaye. Getting a Schanauzer to maintain that "ideal weight" is no easy task. I am glad to hear she is adjusting to her loss of vision.

      Bob, I have seen several dogs like that last one, with medical conditions so it was not cruelty. Still, I have seen a lot more fat ones. A LOT more. Weight gain is a big problem everywhere. (Which is why I think Jaye is amazing in keeping her dog´s weight under control. No matter how I watch the feedings my Schnauzer manages to keep a little pot belly--too much like her owner.)

      Elizabeth, I do not know how you feel about raw but if your dog becomes too picky that is a good option. Dogs love it, and I do not blame them since the kibble, even top end, is not very tasty.

      Thank you all for taking the time to read this.

    • epbooks profile image

      Elizabeth Parker 3 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      Very informative! My dog isn't losing weight, but as she's gotten older, she has become more picky. Of course she still loves people food, but she's more selective with her dog food (and we feed her top shelf food)! Thanks for sharing this information.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 3 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      More good info, Doc. Here in the colonies the greater problem is weight gain. Some 65% of American dogs are overweight. I think animal cruelty is now a felony in all 50 states, and an animal being emaciated as is the dog in your last photo, would bring prison time to the owner. Can you believe that people would be that cruel? Bet your colleagues and shelter personnel could share some real horror stories. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 3 years ago from Deep South, USA

      That last photo is frightening! My dog would be at the vet's long before she reached that state.

      As it is, she lost nearly two pounds during the past 1 1/2 years. First, she went blind and was obviously depressed during the adjustment period. Then she had surgery in June 2014 and had to stay at the animal hospital for a week. Nothing wrong with her appetite--she 'tells' me when it's dinner time, and loves her food (home-cooked high quality). Now that she's feeling more like herself, her weight remains constant. She's not overweight by even an ounce, but not underweight either. Her vet is pleased. Still, if she ever began losing weight I'd take her to the vet's asap.

      Voted Up++