The Effects of Diet and Food on a Dog’s Behaviour
Posted by NutriCanine
For centuries, we’ve considered the idea that the food we eat can directly affect our mental well-being and behaviour - this is also the case for our dogs.
Emerging research has found that nutrition and the food your dog eats can influence their development and lead to problematic behaviour.
In this article, we’re going to ‘peel back the layers of the onion’ and talk about:
- What is problematic behaviour in dogs?
- How can your dog’s feeding schedule affect their behaviour?
- How does food affect your dog’s behaviour at different life stages?
- How can food allergies affect your dog’s behaviour?
- How do the nutrients in your dog’s food affect their behaviour?
So, let’s start with the basics.
1. What is problematic behaviour in dogs?
Behavioural problems in dogs are a widespread concern that few people know how to handle. Typically, problematic behaviour results from stress, anxiety, and fearfulness - often leading to aggressive behaviour (1).
This aggression can be particularly problematic when it comes to food because it promotes territorial and resource-guarding behaviour (2). For dog owners, this creates a safety concern and gives rise to unpredictable behaviour.
The key to preventing these problem behaviours is to support neural development and desensitize your dog to stressors related to food and feeding routines.
To better understand factors that affect your dog’s behaviour, let’s take a closer look at their feeding schedule.
2. How can your dog’s feeding schedule affect their behaviour?
How often you feed your dog can have a significant role in their behaviour.
As pet owners, we can’t assume that our dogs will share the same eating habits as humans.
There are two feeding methods that dog owners can choose between:
1. Once a day feeding (ad libitum)
- It helps to reduce stress related to food access since food is consistently available throughout the day.
- Food options are limited to dry and processed foods that are non-perishable and can be left out for extended periods.
- This method can result in overeating. For example, a recent study showed animals provided with constant access to food demonstrated food-seeking behaviour in response to stress - increasing the likelihood of obesity (3).
2. Multiple meals per day
- Can incorporate fresh and nutritious food as a regular part of your dog’s diet.
- The feeding schedule needs to be consistent; otherwise, your dog can experience stress if a feeding schedule becomes unpredictable.
The ideal feeding method is to provide fresh, nutritious food to your dog multiple times a day.
By keeping a regular feeding schedule, you provide your dog with a sense of security that helps avoid added stress associated with hunger and food-seeking behaviour.
Understanding how much food your dog needs to eat per day is a little bit trickier and requires us to have a general understanding of calories.
Calories are a unit of energy.
Some dogs will need more calories, while others can do with less. How many calories your dog needs per day depends on several factors like breed, age, sex, activity level, and spay/neuter status (4).
It’s always recommended to consult with a veterinarian to learn how much food your dog should be eating per day.
As a quick reference, have a look at the chart below!
3. How does food affect your dog’s behaviour at different life stages?
Now that we’ve introduced the concept of feeding frequency and the importance of maintaining a schedule, let’s build on this and talk about nutritional requirements at different stages of your dog’s life.
The food and energy requirements that puppies need are very different from that of a senior dog.
If every dog was fed the same food, we’d be increasing the chance of developing problematic behaviour.
Let me tell you why!
Nutritional requirements of puppies
A growing puppy has a higher level of metabolism, and with that comes an increase in caloric intake.
If your puppy lacks the proper amount of calories per day, they can run out of energy, become stressed, and initiate an innate hunger response.
From a behaviour standpoint, this added stress early in development can have a lasting affect.
To avoid developing problematic behaviour due to a lack of food and feeding frequency, it’s essential to feed your puppy 3 - 4 meals per day to allow a consistent supply of energy.
This doesn’t mean 3 - 4 entire meals, but instead, we should be splitting their total daily intake and portioning it into smaller meals throughout the day.
Take care not to overfeed your puppy! This can lead to rapid weight gain and put pressure on underdeveloped bones and joints - potentially causing problems for the skeletal system. Your veterinarian can help you decide how much food to feed your puppy for each meal.
In addition, since your puppy’s nervous system is actively developing during this period, it’s important to supply adequate amounts of dietary fats and nutrients that support proper neural development.
In a recent study, puppies fed a neuroactive nutritional supplement containing various vitamins and fatty acids showed improved fat metabolism and nervous development (5).
Thus, by supporting the healthy development of the nervous system, we are also helping prevent behavioural issues that result from improper nutritional intake during this sensitive period in your puppy’s life.
Here is a summary of your puppy’s growth stages and what types of nutrients they require to support healthy development:
1 Month Old
Your puppy is ready to be slowly weaned off of the mother’s milk and begin to adapt to quality solid food. This is a crucial step to strengthen your puppy’s immune system and support a healthy digestive microbiome.
2 - 4 Months Old
Now your puppy is growing rapidly and doubling in weight every 8 - 10 days (6).
This means your puppy needs adequate amounts of calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D to provide efficient intestinal absorption and support the rapid growth of its skeletal system.
4 - 7 Months Old
With a growing skeleton comes the need for increased muscle development. Your puppy’s food needs highly digestible proteins to break down these proteins into usable amino acids that build muscle.
7 Months - Adulthood
As we approach adulthood, we start to shift our focus to the maintenance of health.
It’s important to keep feeding your puppy quality food with easily digestible ingredients to maintain healthy joints and support the nervous system.
Nutritional requirements of senior dogs
Just like we talked about the effect of food on puppy behaviour, senior dogs also require a different quantity and composition of food to maintain healthy behaviour.
This “senior” life stage begins around seven years old (7).
Loss of protein
As your dog ages, it begins to require higher amounts of protein in its diet because it’s also losing more protein. This added dietary protein provides a reserve that helps balance natural mechanisms of aging, like decreased protein synthesis and increased protein degradation (8).
If your senior dog isn’t receiving the proper food and nutrients, it will begin degrading muscle protein to use as an energy source. This freed protein enters the bloodstream, increases blood pressure, and can lead to systemic inflammation.
Not only does excessive protein degradation result in muscle weakening, but it also puts added pressure on vital organs like the kidneys to filter protein-rich blood (9).
Since physical and emotional stress are closely related, this added stress on the circulatory system can translate into behavioural changes. To help prevent changes to behaviour, one dietary approach could be to adjust food intake and incorporate meals with highly digestible proteins.
Cognitive dysfunction syndrome
Some aging dogs are also prone to a condition called cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS). This neurodegenerative disease can lead to disorientation, altered interactions with people and pets, changes to sleep-wake cycles, and altered activity levels (10).
With symptoms like disorientation and changes to sleep-wake cycles, it’s easy to see how a senior dog can become more irritable, stressed, and ultimately develop problematic behaviour.
Luckily, studies have shown that proper food and diet can significantly prevent the onset of CDS. Although both dietary and pharmaceutical interventions have proven promising, let’s focus on the dietary approach.
The data suggests we’re able to improve the cognitive function of senior dogs by providing food with increased sources of antioxidants, mitochondrial cofactors, and medium-chain triglycerides (10).
For example, coconut oil is made up of a unique fatty acid composition that contains high amounts of medium-chain triglycerides with a proven neuroprotective role (11). At NutriCanine, we incorporate neuroprotective ingredients like coconut oil into every single raw meal that we make!
By improving cognitive function through food, we also help support healthy behaviour in our senior dogs.
4. How can food allergies affect your dog’s behaviour?
Let’s keep digging deeper.
Suppose you’ve adjusted your dog’s feeding schedule and are providing the right food for your dog’s stage of life. It’s a good idea to also consider food allergies as a contributor to problematic behaviour.
When your dog has an allergy to a particular ingredient in their food, it’s the specific protein structure that their body recognizes as an invader rather than food. Unfortunately, this misidentification is enough to activate the immune system and initiate an inflammatory response (8).
Common food-related allergies can range from mild symptoms, like excessive scratching and licking, to diarrhea and vomiting in more severe cases (12). This can cause a lot of discomfort for your dog and lead to physical and emotional stress - directly affecting their behaviour.
The gold standard to rule out a food-related allergen affecting your dog’s behaviour is to conduct a food elimination trial. This requires shifting your dog to a hypoallergenic diet for 8-weeks, followed by reintroduction to allergy-prone ingredients one at a time (13).
Focusing on 297 dogs, researchers found the most common allergens in dog food to be (12):
- Beef (34%)
- Dairy Products (17%)
- Chicken (15%)
- Wheat (13%)
- Lamb (5%)
If you find out that your dog has a food allergy, we’re here to help. Our selection of fresh recipes can accommodate your dog’s allergies and help promote healthy behaviour!
5. How do the nutrients in your dog’s food affect their behaviour?
Quality food comes down to its nutritional value, but how these nutrients affect the development of problematic behaviour is often overlooked.
Your dog’s behaviour depends on complex interactions between neurotransmitters and hormones that circulate throughout the body. Through diet, the imbalance of certain nutrients can interfere with signalling pathways and influence behaviour.
Recently, food-behaviour studies in dogs have shown some exciting results when it comes to the development of problem behaviours.
Let’s focus on the main macronutrients in dog food.
Proteins and Behaviour
After your dog eats a meal, the food undergoes enzymatic digestion, where the proteins are broken down into their basic functional units - amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of every protein in your dog’s body, including vital neurotransmitters and hormones involved in behavioural responses of the central nervous system (14).
If the development of these signalling molecules is interrupted because of insufficient dietary proteins, this can directly affect your dog’s behaviour.
A recent group of researchers explored the behavioural effects of dietary supplementation with tryptophan (a neurotransmitter precursor). Tryptophan has an important role in the production of serotonin - a chemical messenger involved in many behaviour responses.
Looking at 33 privately owned dogs with a history of territorial or dominance aggression, the addition of tryptophan to their food decreased behaviour associated with territorial aggression (15). Helping address these types of issues, we’ve incorporated tryptophan into our recipes through the addition of proteins from red meats and poultry!
Several studies have also noted that dogs fed low-protein food demonstrated less aggressive behaviour when comparing high- and low-protein diets (14).
Fats and Behaviour
Fats are an essential component of a balanced meal.
Dietary fats maintain the structure of cell membranes, mediate intracellular communication through the creation of chemical messengers, and function as a source of energy storage.
The brain and central nervous system have one of the highest concentrations of fat in the entire body, emphasizing the importance of supporting a healthy nervous system through dietary fats (14). Once the nervous system begins to deteriorate, the development of problematic behaviour will follow suit.
Studies in dogs have mainly focused on the effects of dietary fats regarding pregnancy and puppy development. When pregnant dogs had their diets supplemented with α-Linolenic acid (Omega 3), researchers found the mother’s milk had a higher level of Omega 3.
Since Omega 3 fatty acids have a crucial role in neuronal development, increased Omega 3 in the mother’s milk may help support the healthy behaviour of puppies into adulthood (14).
Carbohydrates and Behaviour
Carbohydrates are sugar molecules that are either digestible or indigestible. Both are found in your dog’s food!
Digestible carbohydrates like starch are degraded by enzymes into simple sugars easily absorbed through the intestines and into the bloodstream. This leads to increased blood glucose, increasing energy levels, and potentially promoting hyperactive behaviour (14). Studies have shown that elevated blood glucose can also affect the bioavailability of tryptophan - the protein involved in neural signalling pathways and behaviour that we talked about earlier.
Regarding indigestible carbohydrates, these are referred to as dietary fibre and have an important role in regulating digestion. Mainly, dietary fibres help slow down the rate of digestion, decreasing the transit time of food through the intestines and promoting efficient absorption of nutrients across the intestinal membranes (8).
This decreased rate of digestion also leads to a prolonged feeling of fullness (satiety), helping to prevent problematic behaviour associated with food motivation (14).
“When we are considering how a dog is behaving, we really should be considering what is inside the stomach.”
Finally, the relationship between food and behaviour is receiving some much needed attention. Thanks to developments in modern medicine, we’ve developed the technical skills needed to study the link between food, nutrition, and behaviour.
Food scheduling, life stages, potential allergies, and nutrient composition are all factors capable of affecting the behaviour of our dogs. Thus, it’s important to understand these factors and apply them to support healthy behaviour and development!
Set some time aside and talk to your veterinarian. Find out which nutrients your dog should be eating, and in what proportions - this can vary based on their age, sex, and breed.
Understanding animal nutrition might seem like a daunting task, but we’re here to help! If you have any questions, we’re only one message away.
Every NutriCanine recipe has been created with a specialist to provide your dog with balanced meals that keep them nourished. Pre-portioned and delivered straight to your door!
You can have a look at some of our raw and gently cooked recipes here.
For some extra information, TED-Ed has made a great video that summarizes the effects of nutrition on behaviour.
Efficient, enjoyable, and less than five minutes!
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- Jacobs JA, Coe JB, Pearl DL, Widowski TM, Niel L. Factors associated with canine resource guarding behaviour in the presence of people: A cross-sectional survey of dog owners. Prev Vet Med. 2018 Dec 1;161:143-153. doi: 10.1016/j.prevetmed.2017.02.005. Epub 2017 Feb 17. PMID: 28268035.
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- Price SR, Gooch JL, Donaldson SK, Roberts-Wilson TK. Muscle atrophy in chronic kidney disease results from abnormalities in insulin signaling. J Ren Nutr. 2010;20(5 Suppl):S24-S28. doi:10.1053/j.jrn.2010.05.007
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