College of Veterinary Medicine

Pet Health Topics

Feeding a Previously Starved Dog 


This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.
red dog

“Emaciated” was too mild a word to describe the condition of the young terrier mix. This sad animal had no known history other than obvious hardship. Her pathetic body condition was not the only testimony to her previous existence, a wide scar encircled her muzzle indicating at some point her mouth had been bound shut; either by accident or intention was immaterial, the end result was the same. A dog, that should weigh forty-five pounds, tipped the scale at only thirteen, and as a veterinary student it was my charge to get her back to a healthy weight. 

Feeding her a high quality, well-balanced dog food was the first step toward recovery. That meant a dog food that contained protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, of sufficient quantity and quality, to meet her metabolic needs. 

Federal law requires that a dog food be labeled as either nutritionally complete or “complementary”. Complementary labeled food must be fed in association with additional food, or nutritional supplements, to make a ration that would meet a dog’s total nutritional needs. A “nutritionally complete” dog food requires no supplementation; it is a balanced ration. Comparing nutritionally complete dog foods, and national brands sold by many local veterinary clinics, illustrated their nutritional values were comparable.

Simply feeding her dog food seemed insufficient, given the degree of her starvation. Surprisingly, the veterinary texts I consulted said the key was to simply feed her more dog food, not additional nutrients. Despite her starvation, she was an otherwise healthy dog. Consequently, supplementation of nutrients above and beyond what her food already contained could actually be harmful, not helpful. Excessive vitamin D could lead to calcium deposits in her kidneys and excessive carbohydrate could cause digestive problems such as lactose intolerance (the carbohydrate naturally found in milk/milk products). Best intentions aside, she received nothing but dog food and clean water. 

Within a week, her pelvic bones began to disappear under a layer of new muscle. After two weeks, her ribs began to melt into a smooth side. After a month, the fur that had been shaved for a spay operation began to grow, diminishing her look of a patchwork quilt. An animal that once bit the bars of her cage trying to get the food faster than it could be put down, now left a portion uneaten. Her muzzle scar was all that remained as evidence to her former mistreatment: a thick white line sewn down a dark face. It was akin to her life experiences, the sharp contrast between human cruelty and human kindness. 

This Pet Health Topic was written by Sarah Hoggan, Washington State University, Class of 2001.

Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.

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Last Edited: Jul 22, 2009 9:36 AM   

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