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Food to Help Your Cat or Dog Gain Weight

Nutritional Guidelines for Underweight Pets

By Kat Sherbo. December 14, 2012 | See Comments

  • expert or vet photo
    vet verified

    Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM

    Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

    Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

Food to Help Your Cat or Dog Gain Weight

We spend so much time worrying about our pets (or ourselves) being overweight, we forget that the other end of the spectrum is a major issue as well. If you're not sure if your cat or dog looks malnourished, here are a few things to look out for.

Whether your cat or dog is a new addition to the family and coming from difficult circumstances, or your long-time pal suddenly seems very skinny, it can be scary to see a pet lose too much weight. Underweight pets can be sluggish, undernourished, and are potentially at risk for more health issues if their bodies don’t get enough nutrients.

Here’s what you need to know about feeding your underweight pet and getting them the proper nutrition to regain a healthy weight.

How Can I Tell if My Pet is Underweight?

Take a look at your pet from the side. Can you see a marked indent between their ribs and hips? Look at your pet from the top. Does their back become very skinny in this area? If you can see your pet’s ribs or spine, your pet may be underweight.

Other signs of malnourishment include a lack of energy and a decline in the luster of their coat or self-grooming.

Food bowls left unfinished, of course, can also be a sure sign that your pet isn’t eating enough or has more serious health problems.

Possible Underlying Issues

Weight loss, especially sudden weight loss in a formerly healthy pet, can be a sign of underlying health problems. Parasites and worms, kidney disease, liver problems, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, for example, can all result in weight loss.

Talk to your veterinarian if your pet continues to lose weight or won’t regain it, or shows other signs of illness like diarrhea, vomiting, frequent urination, coughing, or strange behavior.

What Kind of Food to Get

As a general rule, an 11-pound cat will need to consume between 220 to 335 Calories (kcal) a day and a 100-pound dog needs 1650 to 2250 Calories a day, depending on activity and lifestyle. If you know your pet isn’t getting enough, it’s time to try one of these tricks to boost their calorie intake.

  • Provide food that is high in calories, like puppy or kitten food, or for dogs, food that’s designed for active, athletic, or working dogs. Higher protein and fat pet foods are best.
  • Underweight pets should be eating foods that are around 30% protein and 20% fat if they’re eating dry kibble, or 7% protein and 5% fat, or higher, if you’re feeding a wet food.
  • Intersperse your pet’s diet with small amounts of high-calorie supplemental canned food or canned products made of 100% meat sources. These will have a high protein and fat content, like 100% pheasant or bison, for example. They won’t say “complete and balanced” but rather “for intermittent or supplemental use” because they’re not meant to replace regular feeding.
  • Some moist foods may be easier to digest, so your pet may retain more nutrients, and more importantly these products tend to be more palatable and tempting to a pet who isn’t eating enough.

Feeding Practices for an Underweight Pet

Try free feeding, or feeding multiple servings a day instead of one. Free feeding, or leaving out bowls of food all day, can encourage a pet to eat who is shy of eating in front of people, or who may prefer to snack on a single meal for a few hours as opposed to eating in one sitting.

Dividing your pet’s daily meal into several servings can also give your pet more opportunities to consume the calories they need.

Fun Treat Options

Some cats and dogs absolutely love cheese or boiled eggs. You can remind your pet of the joy of eating by putting a dab of cottage cheese or breaking up a slice of cheddar into their food, or adding a cooked chopped egg into the mix. Remember these are no substitute for a complete and balanced diet, but can be used as up to 10-15% of your pet’s daily intake to promote better eating habits.

You May Need Supplements

If your pet isn’t regaining a healthy weight fast enough, it may be time to supplement their diet with vitamins. These can help keep important nutrients at healthy levels while your pet regains their vitality. Talk to your vet about using a vitamin complex or multivitamin for pets.

More on Pet Nutrition

Ideal Dog Weight Chart
Nutrition to Treat Liver Disease in Cats and Dogs
Find the Best Pet Food for Your Dog or Cat

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.

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