Could Your Dog’s Diet Be Influencing Their Behavior?
With 89.7 million companion dogs in the U.S., we are undoubtedly a nation of animal lovers. Ensuring our four-legged furry friends have everything they need to be happy and healthy is at the top of most dog guardians’ agendas. But while most guardians know the benefits of good nutrition for their dog’s health, they may not realize that it can also affect their canine companions’ behavior in a variety of ways. While there has been some debate about the link between diet and canine behavior, it’s clear that nutrition can affect how a dog behaves, both positively and negatively, as a variety of studies have shown.
A study into the effect of nutrition on dog behavior found that specific nutrients combined with diet composition (e.g., a high- or low-protein diet) could affect areas of the brain that influence behavior. As with humans, dog nutrition affects the building blocks for every cell and metabolic process in the body. The nervous system, including the brain, cannot function well if it doesn’t have the correct nourishment. The way a dog behaves is a direct result of activity in its central nervous system. Therefore, it’s not surprising that a dog who doesn’t have a healthy and nutritious diet appears lazy and inactive. That old adage, ‘you are what you eat,’ may hold some truth after all. So, how exactly does the food we give our companion dogs shape their mood and behavior?
All dogs require a balance of nutrients in their diet, including carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, to maintain their health. A well-balanced diet containing quality ingredients should offer the right composition of nutrients to keep a dog mentally and physically fit. This is especially important for guardians who put their companion dogs on a homemade diet. In a recent study, scientists assessed 200 homemade dog food recipes available in seemingly reliable sources, including veterinary and animal care books. However, only nine of these recipes met all of the essential nutrients dogs need in the concentrations recommended by the Association of American Feed Control Officers. A high-quality canine diet will include some carbohydrates, which are necessary to provide energy. But getting the right balance of carbs is crucial. Too many carbohydrates at the wrong times can cause a surge in blood sugar and peaks in energy followed by a big energy dip (similar to when a child eats too much candy).
What’s in the food you give your dog can affect their behavior in many different ways. For instance, fatty acid DHA can increase a puppy’s mental alertness and is also a good brain food for older dogs. Senior dogs given an antioxidant-enriched diet can learn more complicated tasks and are less likely to experience age-related behavioral changes linked with cognitive decline. Thiamine, or Vitamin B1, is another essential ingredient in dog food that helps with carbohydrate metabolism and is essential for a dog’s brain. Thiamine deficiencies can result in stomach upset, neurological problems, and even heart issues. Finally, research into omega-3 fatty acids suggests that it may help maintain a dog’s mood and lower anxiety levels.
Most of us know only too well how miserable we feel if we don’t eat enough during the day. The same goes for dogs, who can become disruptive if they’re left feeling hungry. In some cases, dogs who lack an adequate diet can develop a condition called pica. This is when a dog starts scavenging and eating non-food items such as plants, soil, and even objects around the house. In extreme cases, they may even start eating feces. Free feeding, which is when food is left out all day for dogs to graze on, is one way to make sure your dog always has access to food (unless, of course, your vet advises that this isn’t suitable for your dog). When scheduling your dog’s meals and calculating how much food to serve, it’s important to consider your dog’s size, age, health status, weight, and daily exercise. This ensures your dog gets an adequate and balanced diet to meet their unique needs.
Unfortunately, dogs can also experience a variety of food allergies and sensitivities that need to be addressed through diet. Common allergens in dog food include wheat, dairy, beef, soy, corn, eggs, chicken, and lamb. According to the American Kennel Club, signs of food sensitivities in dogs may include stomach upset, skin reactions, and in severe cases, anaphylactic shock. Furthermore, research has found that dogs with skin allergies may display undesirable behaviors stemming from psychological distress, including “mounting, chewing, hyperactivity, eating feces, begging for and stealing food, excitability, attention seeking, and excessive grooming.” Some dogs can also develop allergy-induced ear infections. In fact, according to one source, ear disease occurs in approximately 80% of dogs with food sensitivities.
If you are concerned about your dog’s behavior, you should consult your veterinarian before making any diet adjustments. This includes if your dog is showing signs of behavioral problems or if you aren’t sure whether a behavior is normal. As I’ve explained in this blog, nutrition can have a significant impact on the way your dog behaves, but behavior may also be impacted by other factors, including age, environment, mental and physical stimulation, and health status. Changing your companion animal’s diet should never be treated as a quick fix.
As animal guardians, it’s our responsibility to make sure our dogs are given the best possible care. Feeding them a healthy, balanced diet is a critical part of this, and working together with a veterinary professional to make evidence-based decisions is the best way to ensure our dogs receive the nutrients they need to thrive.