Fooding for Life

Does Diet Affect Behaviour ..

Until recently, the question of whether food or feed can affect your fur kids' behaviour has been a long-debated subject amongst behaviourists and trainers.

Photo by Anastasia Ulyanova on Unsplash

In our Mutts, Pups, Nobles, Masters and Muggles?

Pet parents turn to real food for their pack for a variety of reasons. Lately, we have noticed more picky eaters, excessive barking, loose stools, gassy tummies, mood swings, restless sleep, hot spots, compulsive disorders, reactivity, aggression, hyperactivity, and biting, as reasons for investigating real food versus anti-food diets. Said conditions can all be symptoms of a poor diet indeed.

Yet, until recently, the question of whether food or feed can affect your fur kids’ behavior has been a long-debated subject amongst behaviourists and trainers. Fortunately, there is more evidence and studies being published to show that what you put into your fur kids, can and does have an influence on how your fur kids behaves — just like what you eat can top or topple your own moods.

Behavior in animals (including humans) is regulated by neurotransmitters and hormones. These substances have precursors, which are chemical compounds that precede them in metabolic pathways. The main theory behind nutrition and its ability to alter canine behavior is that making these precursors more – or less – available, may make a difference in a dog’s conduct.

Tryptophan​1​ ​2​, for example, is the precursor of serotonin (a neurotransmitter). It is believed its presence or absence may affect aggression and stress resistance in dogs. Tyrosine, a precursor of catecholamines (hormones produced by the adrenal gland), may also affect aggression and stress resistance.

To avoid nutritional pitfalls, take time to do your homework. Start your research with a close look at nutritional models for huumans. This avenue can help you to learn about better food choices that positively influence how humans behave, and as you will see, points to affecting the way your fur kids behaves as well.

The Child Wisdom website (Ref) has great information about how food affects human children. The following is noteworthy since many of the problems revealed here are the same problems routinely mentioned when counselling pet parents about their fur kid’s erratic behaviors:

Food Sensitivities / Allergies – Some people get depressed or behave irrationally after they eat (often unknowingly) something to which they are sensitive or allergic. This phenomenon, sometimes called a “brain allergy” has been widely reported and sometimes appears in patients who display mental health symptoms.

True classic food allergies involve an antigen-antibody immune response (IgE-mediated) and are relatively rare. About 5% of children and about 2% of adults are reported to have these “true food allergies”. In contrast, food sensitivities, sometimes called food intolerances, are reported by almost 25% of Americans.

Usually missed by traditional antibody blood tests, these food sensitivities are most often identified through elimination. (If a symptom disappears when all sources of a certain food are eliminated from the diet for several days and then reappears when that food is reintroduced, the symptom is likely to be related to sensitivity to that food.) Any food may cause a reaction, but the most commonly reported food sensitivities involve wheat gluten, dairy products, yeast, corn, eggs, soy, grapes, oranges, chocolate and synthetic food additives.’

Looking at huuman models can offer interesting comparisons; however, watching our fur kids in their natural habitats is truly reveling. As of late, the behaviour community is trying to understand more about the innate behaviours of dogs, including their eating habits: Dogs scavenging in trash cans, dumps and other locations of “plenty” are all very common — not hunting, as was believed for many years. The small amount of hunting these feral dogs do is mostly comprised of catching lizards, small rodents and birds.

Whether dogs are classified as omnivores or carnivores is not relevant to our discussion, and therefore, eating both plant matter and meat, based on field observations, scavengers might be the more fitting description of their dietary practices. It’s no wonder that our fur kids will eat just about anything you put in their bowls! Still, just because most dogs will eat whatever you put in their bowl, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for them — or nutritionally sound. In our minds, the real difference is thriving versus surviving. Real food allows your pack to thrive.

Fooding for behavioural health …

As pet parents and guardians, it’s important to give active thought to what you feed your fur kids, since different foods will lead to different results – not just medically but behaviourally as well. According to many veterinarian and behaviour experts, such as Dr Karen Becker and Dr Bruce Syme, we are producing future generations of health and behaviour problems for our fur kids by feeding overly processed, chemical and dye-laden commercial dog foods that appear wonderful to humans, but often have nutritional deficits and long-term toxic effects for our fur kids.

Part of this problem starts with the companies producing many of the popular name brands of feed. In the January, 2003 issue, the Whole Dog Journal made this statement:

“Mostly, the giant companies, corporate cousins to the human food manufacturing industry, serve (partially) to spin figurative gold out of the “straw” leftovers from the human food side. The human food processors use the good parts, and the food fragments that would otherwise be wasted are put to good use in pet foods.

The result is a consistent, inexpensive, but not particularly healthy food that is readily available anywhere in the country.”

To further demonstrate the point, consider this statement from Dr Messonnier in his book titled ” The Allergy Solution for Dogs“:

“The ‘whole grains’ used in many dog foods have had the starch removed and the oil extracted (usually by chemical processing) for vegetable oil; or they are the hulls and other remnants from the milling process. If whole grains are used, they may have been deemed unfit for human consumption because of mold [fungus], contaminants, or poor storage practices” (see: The Allergy Solution for Dogs: Natural and Conventional Therapies to Ease Discomfort and Enhance Your Dog’s Quality of Life (The Natural Vet), Messonnier, D.V.M., p156 (Amazon)).

Nourishing your fur kids with a grain-based diet will induce an insulin release (to balance high blood sugar after ingesting a high carb diet), and in turn, a cortisol release (to balance low blood sugar). Similar to people who have 10:00 am and 2:00 pm post-meal sluggishness (and require a nap), dogs will become more sedate after ingesting insulin-prompting carbohydrates.

Another problem is corn. Used as a protein source to save money in many popular foods, corn presents a completely different set of difficulties for dogs suffering from behaviour issues, or stress-related problems. Consider the statement from James O’Heare in his book titled “The Canine Aggression Workbook“:

A common protein source in dog food is corn. Corn, however, is unusually low in tryptophan and represents some risk to animals sensitive to serotonergic under activity.” (see: The Canine Aggression Workbook, O’Heare 2000 (Amazon), p215).

Serotonin is what keeps your pack well balanced and helps to control moods, arousal, and sensitivities to pain, sounds and touch. It is also the major component in healthy sleep/awake cycles. An imbalance of serotonin can cause sleep problems which frequently exacerbate behavior problems during times when your fur kid’s awake; thus making training or modification that much more difficult. Many behaviourists now recommend the complete elimination of corn in the diet because of this problem. It’s always better to start out with an even playing field to ensure that your fur kid’s diet is not creating any underlying problems that could make living with your pack more difficult.

How does Food Effect Behaviour?

Author and behaviourist Bill Campbell (see: Behaviour Problems in Dogs, 3 rd Ed., 1999 (Amazon)) believes that the high-carbohydrate, (junk carbs, not complex carbs) ingredients found in many McKibble and McCan foods are directly related to problems such as hyperactivity and hypersensitivity to normal stimuli in everyday life. Campbell points to the fact that there has been little study done on dogs in this area, but that there is some pro-carbohydrate information to be found, even though it is a well-known fact that dogs do not need any carbohydrates at all to survive.

Campbell discounts the studies by saying, “We must bear in mind that most of the studies you may have read on this subject, if not all of them, may have been funded by high-carbohydrate diet dog food manufactures”.

What we do know is how junk carbohydrates and junk food affects humans, and it doesn’t take much of a leap to believe that products affecting our behavior or moods, also affect our fur kids behavior.

Edmund R. Dorosz, BSA, DVM also believes that dog food can cause hyperactivity and unusual behavior patterns in dogs. He states:

We hear of many dogs today being allergic to meat. Beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and other meats are being fingered as the culprits. This is something hard to believe, for a species that has been carnivorous for millions of years to be now allergic to meat. Maybe it’s something in the meat or in the “complete and balanced” diets that are foreign and new to our dogs that are causing the problem” (see: “Heredity and Environment – What Role Does Nutrition Play?” (Article)).

The following are some diet-related unwanted behaviors or conditions behavioural therapists have observed over the years while working with dogs of all breeds and ages:

  • A dog on a poor diet may be underweight or overweight, have a dry brittle coat, dental problems or foul breath.
  • Poor nutrition may stress the dog’s body. A stressed dog does not digest foods well and can have intestinal problems like gas and diarrhoea. He may also exhibit signs of separation anxiety or even pain.
  • Some dogs cannot digest high levels of incomplete proteins and thus don’t get the necessary amino acids they need to thrive. A dog deprived of high-quality protein or other nutrients may exhibit a number of unwanted behaviours, including:
    • “Counter-surfing” – stealing food from a counter or tabletop;
    • Aggression over food, treats or toys;
    • Digging and escaping-to seek out better nutrients he is lacking;
    • Eating soil-sometimes linked to a mineral deficiency;
    • Getting into the garbage – Coprophagia (eating faeces) – whether his own or that of another pet;
    • Chewing on wood (including furniture), rocks, and other objects around the house and yard;
    • Devouring his meal and then vomiting it up again;
    • Over-exuberance can be due to eating too many carbohydrates (starches);
    • Some dogs fed too many cereals from wheat, corn and corn meal may be hyperactive, unfocused, or agitated and difficult to train;
    • Too much of the wrong type of fat may result in obesity, lethargy, diabetes or heart problems.

In our experience, we have seen marked improvement in fur kid’s behaviors by switching them to a more biologically, species appropriate diet in conjunction with a sensible training program.

But … !

Just as dogs are not huumans, huumans are not dogs.

Contrary to common belief, dogs know that they are dogs and not huuman. They also know that we are huuman and not dogs. It is us humans who frequently get confused on these matters. Since we are human, we are not expected by our dogs to act like dogs. We must communicate with them in a way that they can understand, but that does not mean that we should try to act like them. Not only would we be poor imitators, but however well we pretend, we would still be human, and our dogs will always know what we are.

Because our dogs live in our very complex human world, it is necessary for us to assume leadership and teach them our rules. We must provide for them not just in terms of food and shelter, but also in terms of their health and safety.

What to do with this information?

So what’s a pet parent to do? The bags of food at pet stores and supermarkets look amazing, and they all claim to meet the nutritional needs for your pack. Many also claim to benefit the maintenance / health of different body types and specific groups such as large-breed puppies, overweight dogs, or senior canines. So which ones are telling the truth, and how do you choose the best possible food for your fur kid’s needs?

The most important data required to understanding McKibble and McCan is to thoroughly read the labels. Dog food labels are similar to those on human food products: Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. The first three ingredients make up the bulk of the food, so those are the most important to look at when selecting a dog food brand.

Meat or a specific type of meat meal should always be the first ingredient on the label. If you are set on sticking to McKibble or McCan, make sure you choose a product that identifies the type of meal; such as “chicken meal,” or “lamb meal,” as opposed to those that say “poultry or meat meal”, which can contain just about anything that fits under that title, including road kill and diseased animals, as long as it’s a bird in the case of poultry, and any animal (domestic or otherwise) in the case of meat meal. 

Falling into the meat meal category was the recent discovery of Phenobarbital (the drug used to euthanise animals) found in a number of commercially sold dog foods, including some popular “brand names.” It was suggested that the remains of euthanised domestic animals are rendered into animal feed – the likely source of the Phenobarbital. Phenobarbital is a hearty compound that is able to survive the cooking process, which is why, it was detectable in the tested food. Since there has been a recent uprise in the cat version of “Mad Cow’s Disease”, this may very well prove to be the case.

As your investigation continues, also look to make sure the first ingredient is not a meat by-product. By-products are not muscle meats, and can include leftover animal components such as lungs, kidneys, brain, spleen, liver, bone, blood, fatty tissue, stomach, and intestines freed of their contents. This is also extreme relevant in choosing your raw food provider, as there are many unscrupulous providers of raw meals that might put your pack at risk.

The next step in selecting a good food, and not feed, is to look at the type and amounts of grains listed on the label. Grains are usually used to keep production costs down, and while certain grains are beneficial to good health, others are known to cause allergies. Keep in mind that our manufacturers do not use any grains or undesirable fillers in their formulas.

Keep in mind, the higher grain contents will also mean you will need to feed more cups of food, since it takes a lot more grain than meat to reach the nutritional levels required to satisfy a dog’s needs. For this reason, you can actually end up spending more per cup for many of the “cheap” brands than the high-end foods, not to mention you will have an increase in the amount of bowel movement that could lead to house-training problems or stress as your fur kid’s need to eliminate increases. If your pack does not have free access to his or her potty area, they may develop anxiety problems as they try to “hold it,” so as not to have an accident in the house.

Vomatoxin, which is a chemical compound produced by Fusriaum molds [fungus] is another concern in McKibble and McCan. These molds [fungus] are found in the following grains: wheat and wheat products, corn and corn products, peanut meal and peanut products (Aflotoxin), soybean meal and hulls, and cottonseed (Aflotoxin.) These mold spores can present a mired of health (including death) and behavior problems if your fur kid develops an allergy to them.

In addition, carbohydrates act much like sugar, as we highlighted earlier. These high grain-content foods produce excessive energy for about two hours after being ingested by your fur kids; which is illustrated in the same way athletes “carb up” for an energy boost before they need to perform. The high-carbohydrate dog feed do the same thing to your fur kids, except most people do not provide their fur kids with the right combination of mental and physical exercise necessary to work off all that energy. The results of all that energy is often destruction to your home or yard or other behaviors such as rough play and biting.

Nourishing your fur kids with protein means no post-meal sluggishness … another way of saying, ‘No nap required! Ready to play at any time!’ Although carb-loading has become a common trend with huumans, carb loading dogs (to induce the post-carb “downer” effect) isn’t an appropriate behavior moderation tool, as highlighted by Dr Karen Becker. Training and exercise are the correct tools to deal with behavior issues, not feeding an inappropriate diet to create a more sedate dog.

Behaviourally speaking, everything from house-training problems to self-mutilation can be linked to poor quality feed, and some of these behaviors directly point to the preservatives, additives and dyes used in McKibble and McCan. The health considerations of these compounds are plentiful and can lead to a dog displaying his discomfort behaviourally. The chemicals most often associated with cancer and other toxic-driven diseases are the preservatives found in many dog feeds. BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene) and Ethoxyquin are all known carcinogens and, by regulation, are disallowed in human food but preserve many dog feed and dog treats. If you see these ingredients listed on the bag, put the bag back on the shelf and keep looking.

It is far better to look for a food that preserves with natural ingredients. Some natural alternatives are composed of topherols (vitamin E), citric or ascorbic acid (vitamin C), or a combination of the two. In addition, look for the bags that have manufactured dates on the bag, as this ensures *freshness*, since feed preserved with products that are more natural will not have as long of a shelf life. Or consider biologically, species appropriate raw and real pet cuisine instead.

Feed designed for specific age, weight or body-types also seem like a wonderful idea, but fooding a high-end biologically, species appropriate diet eliminates the need to buy these speciality products that are often higher-priced. These manufactures simply add more supplements (that have been processed and preserved along with the feed) in order to make their speciality claims. It is far better to add your own supplements with recommendations from your veterinarian or health-care advisor, or switch to a real food diet.

How and when to food then?

When to food your fur kids, is just as important as what you food them. No longer is the standard once a day feeding used, neither should your pack be free-fed – food left down all day for them to nibble at will – unless there is a medical reason. Just think about how you would feel (and look) if you were only able to eat once every 24 hours, or kept nibbling on a high-calorie food all day long!

The ideal regimen is fooding an adult dog two-three times per day. Glucose levels are greatly affected by food (the same as in huumans), so it is important to feed regularly to prevent these levels from becoming erratic as they increase and decrease respectively for those dogs that only eat once a day, or nibbles his food at will without access to expend the on-going energy made available by snacking all day.

Whether it is McKibble (dry kibble), McCan (canned), raw (yes, that’s us!), freeze-dried, or a combination of these, it is essential to do your homework when choosing food for your fur kids.

References & Research

  • A Brilliant New Way to Treat Canine Problem Behaviors, Dr Karen Becker (Ref);
  • Dogs, a New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution, by Ray and Loren Coppinger (Amazon) ;
  • Food Pets Die For, by Ann Martin (Amazon) ;
  • The Allergy Solution for Dogs, by Messonnier, D.V.M (Amazon) ;
  • Whole Dog Journal (Ref);
  • Impact of nutrition on canine behaviour: current status and possible mechanisms. (PubMED) (PubMED);
  • Cognitive and behavioral assessment in dogs and pet food market applications (ScienceDirect) (Ref);
  • Nutrition and canine behavior, Pet Food Industry (Ref);
  • Dog Aggression Workbook, James O’Heare (Amazon) ;
  • Behavior Problems in Dogs, William E. Campbell (Amazon) ;
  • Heredity & Environment- What Role Does Nutrition Play in our dogs? Edmund R. Dorosz, BSA, DVM (Ref);

Dr. Becker Interviews Dr. Koski About Feline Behavior

Feeding Raw Dog Food and Behaviour Changes, Dr. David Sands

Research and References

  1. 1.
    Kałużna-Czaplińska J, Gątarek P, Chirumbolo S, Chartrand M, Bjørklund G. How important is tryptophan in human health? Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2019;59(1):72-88. doi:10.1080/10408398.2017.1357534
  2. 2.
    Heine W, Radke M, Wutzke K. The significance of tryptophan in human nutrition. Amino Acids. 1995;9(3):91-205. doi:10.1007/BF00805951

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