How to Tell If Your Dog Is Underweight

Pet Health


June 11, 2020

Weight is one of the many factors that contribute to a dog’s overall health and well-being. Like anything else, moderation is crucial in maintaining a healthy weight. A dog that is overweight or underweight will likely struggle with daily activities and may be at risk for several underlying health conditions.

Although it is often easy to recognize when a dog is overweight, many owners express uncertainty and concern regarding whether their dog is underweight. Since weight is frequently a topic of discussion and source of confusion among dog owners, the following guidelines should provide some clarity regarding how to tell if your dog is underweight.  

Assessing If Your Dog Is Underweight  

If you’ve ever been present in the room during your dog’s physical examination with the veterinarian, you’ve likely seen the vet perform some simple actions such as picking the dog up or touching specific areas on the dog’s body. While these are generally very brief actions, they can tell the veterinarian a lot about your dog’s weight and body condition. Similarly, you can use these same methods at home to assess your dog’s weight and understand whether they’re underweight. 

Spend some time lightly running your fingers over your dog’s body, particularly around the ribs and the spine. If your dog is a healthy weight, you should be able to feel these bones only slightly; they should be covered by a layer of fat or feel as if there is some extra padding that prevents the bones from being too prominent.

In an underweight dog, you’re less likely to encounter softer layers on the body. Areas such as the ribs or spine will tend to feel much harder and significantly more noticeable on a skinny dog. As you examine the spine area, it should be somewhat more cushioned on a healthy dog. Underweight dogs often have spines characterized by very prominent vertebrae that you can feel without much effort. 

You should perform a visual assessment in combination with your physical assessment of your dog. Visually examine your dog’s body and consider whether areas such as the ribs, hip bones, or the spine are visibly evident. Although you might be able to see these bones sometimes on a healthy dog, particularly depending on their posture, the bones shouldn’t be especially noticeable.

Bones that are too visible may indicate that your dog is underweight or emaciated. Take special consideration regarding any skin that may be hanging as your dog lays down or stands up. Although loose skin is a defining factor among specific types of dog breeds, there shouldn’t be excessive amounts of loose skin, and it shouldn’t hang in a manner that makes the dog’s bones or skeleton seem more exposed than normal. 

You can also assess your dog’s weight with a special scale designed for weighing pets, but keep in mind that this can sometimes provide subjective results and isn’t the same as weighing a human on a regular scale. Getting an accurate weight measurement can sometimes be a matter of trial and error for our furry friends. A dog can fit within a specific weight range but still be underweight based on their body type and various health factors. In this regard, sometimes physically and visually assessing your dog will tell you a lot more about your dog’s health than the weight displayed on the scale.  

How Much Should a Dog Weigh?  

Generally speaking, your dog’s weight will vary depending on its breed and age. Many different weight ranges are appropriate for certain dog breeds, and no two dogs are exactly alike, so you can’t assume that two dogs of the same age but different breeds will have the same weight range.

If you’re curious to learn how much your dog should weigh, you may want to consider checking out a weight calculator as a general estimate or asking your vet about the standard weight for your dog’s breed and age. Keep in mind that if your dog was one of the smaller puppies in its litter or has underlying health conditions, they may naturally weigh less due to those factors.  

What Causes a Dog to Become Underweight?

All dogs experience weight fluctuation throughout their lives, and the causes behind this can truly vary. Some dogs lose weight due to gastrointestinal distress or diarrhea when they’re not feeling well. If a dog is experiencing a prolonged episode of sickness, they may also experience a drop in weight during that period.

Some weight loss is induced by medications, which can cause a lack of appetite or may make a dog feel nauseated as a side effect. Weight loss can also occur when a dog is feeling depressed. If a loved one goes on a trip or there’s a death in the family, dogs can notice. These changes in the environment can make your dog stop eating.

Sometimes it isn’t obvious what causes a dog to be underweight. There may be underlying health conditions, such as a thyroid issue that prevents the dog from gaining weight normally. Some dogs lose weight due to malnutrition – their bodies are unable to process nutrients appropriately, or they aren’t eating a diet with the correct amount of vitamins and nutrients needed to support their immune system. In contrast, a dog with very high activity levels that doesn’t eat enough food may also become underweight if the proper dietary adjustments aren’t made to fit the dog’s needs.  

How to Care for an Underweight Dog  

If you notice your dog is underweight, there are specific actions you can take to start caring for them at home. It’s important not to panic and to remain open-minded about how you will approach caring for your dog during this time.

Talking with your veterinarian can provide you with a lot of insight into the cause of your dog’s lower weight. A clearer understanding of what’s causing your dog’s weight loss can provide you with the necessary context to frame the rest of your actions in tailoring the care you provide at home. 

Sometimes caring for an underweight dog means making adjustments to their feeding schedule and what’s on the menu. You might want to consider introducing meals with higher caloric and nutrient-rich ingredients and reducing any foods that typically have too many fillers. Adding various approved oils to your dog’s food, supplements, or even snacks on top can increase the calories with each meal and get your dog interested in eating again if the issue is just a lack of appetite. Some veterinarians can also prescribe medication or natural treatments that can stimulate your dog’s appetite. 

If your dog is underweight due to an excess of activity and insufficient feeding, you may need to make some lifestyle adjustments. This can include increasing meals or improving caloric intake. You should also take some consideration toward possibly reducing the amount of activity that your dog participates in per day.

Dogs with anxiety or mental health concerns can sometimes overexert themselves physically because it helps them to channel their anxiety or fear. If this is the case and your dog’s weight loss is due to overexertion, you might look into creative ways to distract them or explore different methods to help calm them down.  

Final Thoughts  

To summarize, determining whether your dog is underweight can be as simple as an at-home assessment. If you’re concerned about your dog’s weight after reviewing the methods and guidelines provided here, the next step is to reach out to a veterinarian for an exam and some initial recommendations. You may have to become more creative in adjusting meals and playtime to help your four-legged companion gain weight again.

Still, if you’ve spent any extended length of time with your pooch, much of these changes may already seem natural and intuitive as you tailor your dog’s care. As long as you remember to be supportive of your dog throughout this time and consult your vet if any additional concerns emerge, your little buddy is certain to start picking up a few extra pounds sooner than you expect!