Caring for an Emaciated Dog

By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM

At times, animal shelters or rescue groups are presented with a markedly thin and undernourished homeless dog. (The significant loss of body fat and muscle mass is termed emaciation.) The following presentation relates to the care and recovery assistance provided to dogs that have been homeless for days to weeks.

Ideally, the dog should be thoroughly checked by a veterinarian and veterinary advice should be given regarding the dog’s nursing care. However, if veterinary assistance is not available, shelter personnel should, upon initial admission to the shelter, do the following:

1. Create an individual animal chart for the dog so that daily records and notes can be recorded.

2. Conduct a thorough inspection for any identification markers such as ear or inner thigh tattoos and/or microchips. These subcutaneous tiny microchip implants can migrate, so scan the entire dog for a microchip implant.

3. Record the dog’s temperature, weight and also note an estimated normal weight on the chart.

4. Conduct a thorough physical exam. Don’t neglect to inspect the oral cavity for fractured teeth, bone fragments lodged between teeth, and lacerations to or under the tongue. Check for eye and ear infections; check under the tail for evidence of anal sores, tapeworm segments, or maggot infested moist infections. Check the paws for abraded pads or interdigital infections or foreign matter.

5. Gently probe with your fingertips all areas of the abdomen. This is most easily done having an assistant restrain the dog’s head while the dog is in a standing position. Stand/kneel at the dog’s hip and facing forward places the left hand fingers along the left side of the dog’s abdomen and passing the right hand under the belly and placing the right hand fingers opposite to the left. Gently bringing the hands together, and probing and pushing various areas along the abdomen will reveal important information.

Does the dog display pain? Does the dog "cramp up" and grunt when abdominal pressure is applied? If so, the dog may need veterinary care. If no pain is noted and the dog tolerates the abdominal palpation, the odds are good that there are no significant or life abdominal threatening problems.

6. Check the gums and tongue for color. A pale or grayish color may indicate anemia from blood loss or rodent poison ingestion. Likewise, if there are areas on the gums or whites of the eyes where blotches of hemorrhage are noted, veterinary care is needed right away. The gums and tongue should be pink to reddish.

7. Offer the dog a small amount of water and observe the dog’s interest and ability to drink.

8. Determine if the dog is dehydrated. The best way to do this is to gently grasp a fold of skin at the base of the neck and pull the skin upward, away from the dog. In a normal state of hydration when you let go of the stretched fold of skin, it readily snaps back into place. If, however, the skin fold does not snap back, but seems to dissipate in slow motion, that display of poor elasticity will only occur if the dog is dehydrated.


Non-veterinary care can be successful as long as the rescued dog does not have a serious medical disorder such as kidney failure, anemia, pancreatitis or bowel obstruction due to garbage or foreign body ingestion.

Since many dogs admitted to an animal shelter have been injured while homeless, they need careful evaluation for broken bones, burns or gunshot injuries. Garbage ingestion can cause bacterial enteritis and bloody diarrhea, severe pancreatitis, and intestinal blockage due to the consumption of bones.

What Happens During Starvation?

Researchers have studied how a dog’s body organs and biochemistry are disrupted by various lengths of time of starvation. If the dog is healthy to begin with, and no medical problems exist that, of course, would compound the starving dog’s medical status, a predictable sequence of adaptations take place.

The dog’s biochemical functions shift into survival mode within twenty-four hours with no nutritional intake. The highest priority of the dog’s metabolic processes becomes the necessity to keep the blood glucose concentration at a normal level. If the blood glucose ("blood sugar") level drops too low for any reason, the brain, heart, muscles and kidney function shuts down rapidly and death comes quickly. So, when the dog has no opportunity to eat, the survival mode’s first concern is to mobilize stored glucose from liver and muscle reserves by changing the biochemical processes to different chemical pathways that make glucose readily available.

After about two days without food the liver reserves of glycogen (glucose) are depleted. So in order to keep the blood level of glucose in the normal range, new chemical pathways open, called gluconeogenesis, where the liver and kidneys create molecules from complicated biochemical reactions so that fats and proteins are extracted from adipose tissue and muscle. As the glucose reserves are tapped and diminished, chemical reactions kick in to create glucose internally from those protein and fat reserves. Energy to run the body’s machinery (muscle, brain, kidney, heart and other organ functions require energy to fuel their activities) is now fueled less by glucose and more by fatty acid extracted from fat reserves.

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