The saying "You are what you eat" might seem like a tired cliché, but it holds profound truth, especially when it comes to our dogs. The diet of our canine companions plays a pivotal role not only in their physical health but also in their behaviour.

Biochemical processes within their bodies greatly influence their moods and actions. These processes are driven by the nutrients derived from the food we provide them every day. In this article, we will explore the intricate relationship between nutrition and behaviour in dogs, highlighting how their dietary intake affects their biochemistry, physiology, and ultimately, their behaviour.

The Biochemical Basis of Behaviour and the Gut-Brain Connection

What we eat plays a big role in how our hormones and neurotransmitters operate. These are the chemicals responsible for driving our behaviour, and they rely on specific nutrients found in food to function properly.

The other major connection between what we’re feeding our dogs and their behaviour is due to the actions of the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract and links to the central nervous system. It’s also referred to as our second brain. So, when we feed our dogs, we're not just fueling their bodies; we're also shaping their emotional well-being. Ever heard of having a "gut feeling", or “butterflies in your stomach” when you're nervous? That's because our gut and brain are in constant communication, with each influencing the other.

But it doesn't stop there. The food we eat also talks to our genes and the millions of tiny microbes living in our gut. So when things go awry in our gut, it can impact our brain health, leading to issues like depression and neurodegenerative diseases. It's like a domino effect – if our gut isn't happy, neither is our brain. And the same goes for our dogs too.

There's also another player called Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (GALT), which makes up a big part of our immune system. So when something messes with the lining of our stomach, it not only affects our brain and behaviour but also weakens our immune system. Picture a dog feeling under the weather or dealing with inflammation – it's no surprise they won't be their usual selves.

Dog eating from bowl - The Impact of Protein

The Impact of Protein

You might be surprised to learn that many commercial dog foods contain very low amounts of animal protein, often relying on plant-based sources like soy, corn, lentils, and gluten meal. While these ingredients might seem nutritious when you spot them on a label, they don't provide all the essential amino acids dogs need for long-term health. Plus, they're not as easily digestible as animal proteins.

Why should you care? Because studies indicate that insufficient protein intake during critical developmental stages can lead to various health issues, including behavioural abnormalities.

To boost your dog’s protein intake, we’d suggest adding real, whole foods to their diet. Eggs, muscle meats like beef, chicken, turkey, kangaroo, and organ meats such as liver or kidney are great options. Even canned sardines can provide a protein-packed boost.

Many dog trainers also now advocate for switching dogs to a raw or cooked whole food diet to enhance training results and behaviour. It's a simple way to ensure your canine companion gets the quality protein they need to thrive.

Navigating Carbohydrates

Did you know that most dog kibbles are loaded with carbohydrates, ranging from 30% to a staggering 60%? These highly refined, high-starch carbs break down into glucose in the body, causing a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. This can then lead to what some researchers describe as a "sugar high" in dogs, resulting in hypersensitivity, uncooperative behaviour, hyperactivity, and difficulty focusing.

But that's not all. Kibbles containing highly refined carbohydrates, like gluten-containing grains, can trigger allergic reactions in some dogs. They can also exacerbate inflammation, which has been linked to changes in behaviour.

Small dog eating - Navigating Carbohydrates

Similar to how certain foods affect behaviour in children, kibbles containing artificial colours, flavours, and additives may similarly worsen anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity in dogs by disrupting their gut health.

So, what's the best approach for pet parents? Opt for more species-appropriate raw or cooked whole foods, or go with the more natural freeze-dried or air-dried options. If you want to stick with kibble, look for one without artificial colours, favours and preservatives.

Harnessing the Power of Plant Matter

Not all carbs are created equal. Research suggests that adding plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, to both our diets and our canines’ meals can be incredibly beneficial. Especially for older dogs.

As dogs age, their brains become more vulnerable to oxidative damage, which can harm neurons and lead to cognitive decline and behavioural changes. This is often seen as canine cognitive dysfunction, which includes symptoms like memory loss, increased anxiety, disorientation, and more - but there’s good news! Studies have found that feeding older dogs a diet rich in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables can help combat this damage and mitigate cognitive decline associated with ageing, leading to better brain health and behaviour.

Harnessing the Power of Plant Matter - Dog eating vegetables

Incorporating plant matter into your dog's diet is also easier than you might think. You can start by sharing some leftover fruits and veggies from your own meals and snacks; just be sure to avoid anything toxic to dogs like onions or large amounts of garlic. It's a simple way to support your dog’s cognitive function and overall well-being as they age.

Understanding the Role of Fats

Fats are like the superheroes of our dogs' bodies, especially when it comes to brain function and hormone production. They're essential for aspects such as:

  • Keeping the brain running smoothly
  • Producing important hormones
  • Protecting the membranes of nerve cells
  • Helping cells communicate
  • Absorbing crucial fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K

However, whilst most dogs get plenty of fats in their diet, the balance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids isn't always ideal. Indeed, an imbalance between omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids can contribute to inflammation and subsequent behavioural disturbances.

Many dog foods are heavy on omega-6s, found in ingredients like corn, soy, and vegetable oils. But what our dogs really need are more omega-3s, which have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and come from sources like salmon, sardines, and mackerel. Indeed, supplementing your dog’s diet with omega-3-rich sources like fish oil, green-lipped mussel or krill oil, can improve learning, mood, and overall behaviour in dogs.

Research likewise suggests that not getting enough omega-3s might impact mood and behaviour in both humans and dogs. For instance, DHA, a type of omega-3, is crucial for puppy brain development and can even improve their learning abilities. And studies have found that aggressive dogs tend to have lower levels of the omega-3 DHA compared to their calmer counterparts.

For older dogs dealing with cognitive issues, adding MCT oil to their diet can work wonders. It can improve their learning, mood, and sociability, making their golden years more enjoyable.

But here's an important criteria to note: when it comes to fish oil supplements or adding fish to their diet, quality matters. Make sure you're sourcing high quality ingredients, whether it's in a supplement or a wholefood source, to reap all the benefits for your canine companion’s brain and behaviour.

Addressing Stress through Nutrition

If your dog feels stressed or displays symptoms of anxiety, adjusting their diet could be a game-changer. As we've mentioned, adding more omega-3 fats can help calm their nerves. But here's another trick: probiotics, which are fast becoming known for their anxiety-reducing abilities. Because did you know that the bacteria in your dog's gut produce neurotransmitters like serotonin and Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which help regulate feelings of fear and anxiety?

Addressing Stress through Nutrition - stressed puppy hiding under couch

You can also ease their anxiety with foods rich in B vitamins and magnesium, like nuts, seeds, and leafy greens. And don't forget about zinca>. Equally, oysters, pumpkin seeds, liver, beef, and egg yolks are all packed with this anxiety-busting mineral.

These foods are a simple and safe first step in managing your dog’s anxiety. If you want to take it up a level, consider trying a calming herbal blend like CanineCeuticals Stress-Ease or Relax. They're specifically designed to help facilitate feelings of calm in your canine companion and to help them feel more at ease.

So to reiterate: certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fats, probiotics, B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc, have been linked to reduced anxiety levels in dogs. Incorporating these nutrients into their diet can help manage stress and promote emotional well-being.

Happy dog at beach with owner

In Conclusion

The link between nutrition and behaviour in dogs is undeniable. By paying attention to what our canine companions eat and making informed dietary choices, we can positively influence their behaviour and overall quality of life - and there are lots of simple things that we can do to improve the quality of the food they’re eating.

Whether opting for a raw or cooked whole-food diet or choosing high-quality commercial options, prioritising nutrition is key to ensuring our dogs thrive both physically and behaviourally. And if you’re not sure how to go about feeding a raw or wholefood diet, there are some great commercial options now available.

Happy eating.

Prefer to learn by listening? Then check out Narelle's podcast episode The Link Between Diet and Behaviour in Dogs here.

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