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Can Diet Impact Dogs’ Behavior?

Andrew Dickens

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Andrew Dickens
Andrew Dickens

Andrew Dickens

Editor

Andrew Dickens is an award-winning writer, editor and broadcaster with 20 years in journalism. He’s created compelling content on film and television, travel, food and drink, physical and mental health, business, sport, technology and politics. And, of course, dog food.

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Updated: April 25, 2024

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There is extensive research on the relationship between the human diet and mental health. We know an evening of junk food will have us slumped on the sofa and a night of drinking will result in a poor night’s sleep. Dare we mention how hyperactive kids are after a bucket of candy? You are what you eat after all.

But can diet impact dogs’ behavior? Although considerably less studied than human behavior, it can.

So how does this happen? And which behaviors could be impacted by your dog’s diet?

What is the brain-belly link?

Behavior is affected by chemical substances called neurotransmitters and hormones in the brain. Changes in the ingredients that help create these substances can impact how your dog acts. Therefore, your dog’s diet, the nutrients they get, and how these components interact are all connected.

For instance, a nutrient called tryptophan, which helps make serotonin, a happy and relaxed hormone, can affect aggression and how well your dog handles stress. Moreover, fatty acids, especially DHA, are crucial for brain development and can affect cognitive performance and behavior.1

It’s important to observe your dog’s behavior and consider their diet in relation to the specific problem. However, diet is just one component that can impact behavior and it’s always a good idea to consult your vet before jumping to conclusions.

Why is my dog hyperactive?

It is normal for most healthy and stimulated dogs to be energetic, alert and curious. However, if your dog just can’t seem to relax, they could be hyperactive and it might be down to what’s in their belly.

Choosing the right food for your dog is essential. It should match their breed, size, life stage, and lifestyle. For instance, working or sporting dogs need high-energy food, while regular pets require less.

When feeding your puppy, you might notice that the puppy diet contains more protein, fats and calories to support their growth, high metabolism and high energy levels. If your dog is tucking into its baby brother’s puppy food, they may show signs of hyperactivity and you certainly don’t want two hyper-active pups bouncing around.

“Feeding a diet which is supplying more energy than your dog needs for their lifestyle and lifestage means that this extra energy can appear as unwanted behaviours as a means of burning off the extra steam,” says Laura Ward, DFA’s nutritionist.

“Feeding your dog inadequate nutrients can trigger behavioral changes due to deficiencies.

“Influenced by the glycemic index, foods (including treats) with simple carbohydrates like sugar can cause quick energy spikes and crashes, while slow-release options like sweet potatoes provide steady energy.”

This blood sugar rollercoaster can make your dog hungrier quicker, leading to overeating and hyperactive behavior.

To avoid this cycle, opt for complete and balanced dog food that suits your dog to keep them satisfied without the need for extra snacks.

What if my dog is low in energy?

As much as we enjoy a quiet life, seeing a dog with little energy to fetch their stick or finish their walk is not ideal for a pet parent. If you notice your canine pal feeling extra sluggish and unbothered, it could be another sign of an unbalanced diet.

Lethargy is often associated with nutritional deficiencies. Other aspects of dog food which may impact behavior can include artificial sources of preservatives, antioxidants, colors, and flavorings.2

“Along with reduced energy, if your dog’s coat isn’t shiny or if their eyes aren’t so bright, it might be worthwhile exploring alternative food options to suit their individual needs, ” says Laura.

“Dogs vary in their nutritional requirements, and some may not effectively extract essential nutrients from their current diet or struggle with poor digestion, resulting in lethargy.

“It’s crucial to ensure that your dog consumes a complete and balanced diet which suits them, whether from commercial or homemade sources.”

Does diet affect your dog’s sleep?

Firstly, if you think your dog is sleeping a lot, don’t worry — it’s probably normal and healthy. Adult dogs sleep around 12-14 hours a day3 (jealous) and puppies even more. Of course, the number of hours that your dog spends sleeping will depend on their age, breed, health, and activity schedule.

But are there any foods that help dogs sleep?

“There are certain foods that are L-tryptophan rich such as turkey, eggs and chicken which are connected with relaxation and sleep,” says Laura. “However, without a precise balance of amino acids, L-tryptophan will be used to build other proteins, rather than making it to the brain to form serotonin.

“Therefore, giving your dog extra proteins won’t necessarily promote their sleep, it’s best to feed them a complete and balanced diet that is suited for them.

“Generally, dogs don’t have the same issues as humans when it comes to sleep. If your dog does have trouble sleeping, consult your vet as sleeping trends in dogs are often connected with stress or illness.”

How diet can cause stress in dogs

Unfortunately, dogs can’t talk about their problems so they often express stress in different forms, including:

  • Aggression over food, treats or toys
  • Digging and escaping to seek out food
  • Tucking into garbage
  • Chewing on household objects
  • Devouring their meal and then vomiting it up
  • Coprophagia (eating faeces)

If your dog is showing some of these signs, they might not be getting enough high-quality nutrients to satisfy them. Some dogs for example can’t digest high levels of incomplete proteins and in turn don’t intake the necessary amino acids.

On the other hand, dogs who are eating too many simple carbohydrates or sugars can become unfocused, agitated and difficult to train.

Ultimately, if your dog is showing consistent signs of stress, speak to your vet and ensure your dog’s food contains the nutrients equipped for their breed.

Regular feeding times

Getting into a predictable feeding routine builds trust between you and your dog. Especially as you’ll be seen to be providing the food, rather than the bowl. Knowing whose responsibility it is to provide the food, and trusting you to do it at the same time every day, is relaxing for them.

Any dog can benefit from a more predictable feeding schedule, but it is essential for dogs that have shown aggressive behavior around food and ex-street dogs/strays who might have had to fend for themselves at some point. Those dogs will be extra sensitive over their food and where it’s coming from.

It is also recommended to let your dog’s food settle for at least an hour before exercising them. Taking your dog for a walk right after their dinner will encourage bloating and discomfort. Feeding a dog an hour before your walk means they will be full of happy nutrients and ready to take on the park.

Remember, diet is only one of the factors that affects behavior. Always consult your vet if your dog’s change in behavior isn’t apparent. Pain, illness or changes in the environment can also be concerning factors in behavior change.

Final word

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