While research is still a bit thin on the ground about the influence of diet on behaviour in dogs, there are some really interesting studies on humans and animals that suggest we can help prevent or at least support the treatment of dog’s that have behavioural issues.
A dog’s behaviour is heavily influenced by its nervous and endocrine (hormones) systems. In turn, these systems rely on an appropriate balance of nutrients to support their healthy functioning. So it makes sense that if our dogs are deficient or have an excess of any of these critical nutrients, it can aversely affect their behaviour.
Nutrients to support neural and hormonal health in your dog
Here’s my list of some dietary components to consider including in a dog’s meal to support a behavioural management plan, preferably sourced from whole, species appropriate foods for your dog:
Tryptophan and tyrosine: Tryptophan is an amino acid contained in many fresh foods and is a precursor to serotonin, which in turn can help induce calm and relaxation in your dog. Tyrosine is another amino acid manufactured in the body that helps regulate mood and behaviour. These are important components to include in the diet of a dog displaying aggressive behaviours or with poor resilience to stress.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs): especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is generally found in marine foods and algae, have an important role in brain development and support good cognitive function.
Magnesium and manganese: deficiencies in these two important minerals have been linked to aggression in human studies. Magnesium is critical to many bodily functions and has a role in actively transporting calcium and potassium ions across cell membranes, which is important for nerve impulses. It is also important for learning and memory. Manganese supports blood sugar regulation and
Iodine: is crucial for thyroid health. Thyroid dysfunction may be a contributing factor in a range of behavioural responses in dogs, including random aggression towards other animals or people, irritability, erratic temperament, peaks of hyperactivity, depression, fearfulness, anxiety, submissiveness, compulsiveness and inability to focus.
The importance of gut health and keeping lean
In humans, there have been a number of studies on how overall gut health affects mood and behaviour. Permeable gut or “leaky gut syndrome” has been linked to a number of health issues, including those affecting mental and emotional states.
There have also been lots of studies on the impacts of high GI foods on behaviour and energy. Sugar and refined grains are particular culprits in contributing to poor gut health and blood sugar levels.
How to support balanced energy, mood and behaviour
Addressing these problems starts by eliminating the culprits that are contributing to poor nervous system, hormone and gut health. So start by cutting out…..
Grain and sugar: eliminate grains and any foods containing added sugars. The exception to this may be small amounts of oats, which contain tryptophan and also have a low glycemic index (GI) so are less likely to induce the spike in insulin and subsequent cortisol release that other grains can cause, resulting in dips and peaks between energy and lethargy.
Artificial additives: heavily processed foods such as colouring and flavourings have been linked to a number of health and behavioural problems in children including restlessness, disrupted sleep, anxiety and inability to focus. While there is little research I can find on the impacts on dogs specifically, it is a reasonable conclusion to draw that it would have similar impacts.
Obesity and inactivity: obesity is another condition that amongst other health issues, has been linked to depression in humans. Exercise has been shown to increase the “feel good’ serotonin levels in humans and dogs, so it goes without saying that inactivity is likely to impact levels of serotonin.
Now what to start including in your dog’s diet and routine……
First and foremost, I would make sure that I give my dog raw, fit-for-species whole foods as the basis of his diet. It is important that it has optimal nutrients to meet my dog’s needs for their lifestage, breed and energy requirements, such as those recommended in some of my previous blogs. Here’s how such a diet can help meet those important nutritional needs to promote a mentally and emotionally sound pooch:
Raw fresh meat and offal: besides containing the fundamental amino acids and nutrients to support most aspects of your dog’s health, meats contain high levels of tryptophan and help to manufacture tyrosine. While other amino acids within the meat can compete with the absorption of tryptophan, raw foods contain important enzymes to promote good gut health. Green tripe is an excellent source of probiotics, all of which support optimal gut health. Raw meals designed to meet the nutritional needs of your dog can be found on in my raw feeding guides. If you have a dog exhibiting aggressive behaviours, it may be worth discussing with your vet supplementing with a tryptophan supplement.
Fish and Fish Oil supplements: one of the best sources of essential fatty acids (EFAs), particularly the type found in marine foods (DHA), which is particularly important for healthy brain function. Sardines, krill oil and mackerel are great options to include in your dog’s diet. Fish and seafood is also a good source of magnesium and manganese. Include fish a couple of times a week and add a fish or krill tablet on the other days (dose for relative weight of your dog according to instructions on supplement).
Eggs: a great whole food for your dog generally, raw eggs have excellent levels of tyrosine. Give your dog an egg a few times a week, adding kefir for an extra probiotic boost.
Crushed seeds: this is one of my favourite whole food supplements. Freshly crushed pumpkin seeds sprinkled on your dog’s food are an excellent source of tryptophan. Seeds generally are good source of tyrosine and manganese too. They are also high in magnesium. Add about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of ground seeds per 4.5 kg of body weight.
Vegetables and fruits: besides supplementing basic nutritional requirements for your dog, green leafy vegetables are a good source of magnesium. Vegetables should comprise about 10% of your dog’s regular meals.
Fermented foods: plain yoghurt, kefir, fermented vegetables or other whole food probiotics promote great gut health. Add 1 tablespoon of finely ground fermented vegetables per kilogram of meat.
Sea vegetables: seaweed and other sea vegetables are one of the best sources of iodine to support thyroid function. (Please note if your dog has been diagnosed with either hyper or hypothyroidism, seek professional advice before using supplementation). Add 1/2 teaspoon per 4.5kg of body weight.
Behavioural issues can be complex and changing your dog’s diet alone is not likely to be sufficient to address the problem. However, ensuring these foods comprise a good proportion of your dog’s diet can be a valuable contribution to a holistic plan to address behavioural issues, complemented by positive behavioural modification programs, an adequate exercise regime and if absolutely needed, medications prescribed by a veterinary behaviourist in more severe cases.
Some of the resources I used to inform my views on this topic:
Becker, K (2012) “A Brilliant New Way to Treat Canine Problem Behaviors” http://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2012/01/12/ways-to-treat-canine-behaviors.aspx
Bosch G, Beerda B, Hendriks WH, van der Poel AF, Verstegen MW. (2007), “Impact of nutrition on canine behaviour: current status and possible mechanisms,” Nutr Res Rev. Dec;20(2):180-94.
Dodds, J (2015), “Canine Nutrigenomics”, Dogwise Publishing, USA.
“Hypomagnesemia in Dogs” http://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/endocrine/c_dg_hypomagnesemia
Owens, J (2008), “Chemicals in pet food can lead to bad behaviour, says top vet” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/chemicals-in-pet-food-can-lead-to-bad-behaviour-says-top-vet-913907.html
“Strong link between obesity and depression” (2009) https://www.adelaide.edu.au/news/news35941.html