So you've done your part and adopted a dog from a rescue group or the pound. You fell in love with those big brown eyes, felt sorry for that thin shivering little body, and didn't hesitate. The rescuer/shelter attendants have given you all the details they have - current diet, inoculation records, worming records and any other available medical details. You stopped at the grocery store on the way home, bought a big bag of food or maybe a case of canned food, a couple of bowls and some doggie treats.
Depending on the age, breed and 'desired' weight of your dog, and any other health problems, you may have to come up with a different feeding strategy. You may also be faced with behavior issues.
Before you get too far into the process, take your new friend to the vet, armed with the records you were given and a fresh stool sample. Your dog will need a complete checkup and needs to be checked for worms (rescue groups do try to prevent problems, but it's a never ending task). Your dog will be weighed and you'll be advised about the weight you should aim for. You'll have confirmation or a better guess at their age. Symptoms of other issues caused by poor diet may be detected too.
Ask your vet for a recommendation on the type of food your dog should be getting - not just brand name, but information on the percentage of protein, carbohydrates and nutrients too.
Other Health Problems
Being deprived of food or important nutrients (for example if a puppy was taken from mom too soon and/or feed adult food) can cause other problems. Bone structure, kidneys, skin and liver problems can all be caused by their poor diet and may be aggravated by too much of a good thing now. Diarrhea can be caused by too rich a food or trying to feed too much food, too fast. The initial vet check may identify some of these problems, others may surface as time goes on. Catch them early by monitoring your dogs health and toilet habits.
If your dog was deprived of food, chances are they were deprived of water too. Some dogs have even been known to be aggressive about their water. A lack of water and/or suddenly getting too much water can cause its own set of problems - in regard to feeding, don't allow your dog to eat a large quantity of dry food then drink a lot of water, which can result in a potentially fatal condition called 'bloat'. Control their water in take, but don't let them become overly thirsty.
If your dog is very young, she will need puppy food, but if she wasn't well fed, or was fed on the wrong food, puppy food may be too rich for her system. You might need to start mixing it in slowly with the food she was getting previously.
The seeds of behavior problems may have already been sewn, but they will be easier to address when your dog is young. Keep an eye out for food aggression especially - don't let yourself or others get bit, don't get angry or aggressive in return, but stand your ground.
Older dogs deprived of sufficient nutrients may need to have a better quality food introduced slowly too. Some health problems may be past curing, but may be managed with patience, the right food, medication and supplements.
Behavior issues will be more ingrained in an older dog, but can still be dealt with. A full grown dog will be more dangerous than a puppy if they start showing signs of aggression, so proceed with caution.
Starvation can cause all sorts of behavior issues, including food aggression, eating too fast, refusing to eat if watched or refusing to eat out an unfamiliar dish.
- Dish guarding or food aggression can escalate and is potentially dangerous to you, your children or other pets. However, depending on the size of the dog and the severity of the aggression, it can be managed.
- Some dogs decided that to beat the "competition", they need to inhale their food. "Wolfing" food isn't necessarily good for your dog, try feeding by hand or put a large stone in their dish. If you're feeding dry food, don't allow your dog to eat too much, too fast, then drink a lot of water.
- A sensitive dog may decide they can't eat or can't eat comfortably, if you're watching, and may refuse to eat at all. Give them a bit of space, but don't "feed" their fear - help them get over it, by reinforcing acceptable behavior.
- If your dog is refusing to eat, it may be because they don't like the food dish! I fostered a St. Bernard puppy who would only eat out of a cottage cheese cartoon or off the floor. She did get over it, but it took time, patience and a bit of creativity - as well as a happy accident to discover what she was trying to tell me!
Think of it as a long term puzzle to be solved. Rather than throwing a large quantity of food at the problem, concentrate on feeding better quality nutrients more slowly. Encourage them to eat, but don't turn them into fussy eaters by spending more time cooking for your dog than your family. Make sure you include exercise in the program and take potential house-training problems into account too.
This may paint pretty bleak picture, but most of these problems can be overcome. The St. Bernard was adopted by a loving family and is working as an unofficial therapy dog with autistic children. If you're patient, proceed slowly, work closely with a knowledgeable vet and do your research, you and your dog will have may happy years together.