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Dog Behaviour: The Hidden Influence of Nutrition on Your Dog’s Mood

Anna Bain, canine nutrition expert and writer at ProDog Raw, shares valuable insights on the connection between nutrition and dog behaviour. Drawing from personal experience, she provides tips on helping dogs with their behaviour, starting from the foundation of balanced gut health.

Anna Bain

Author: Anna Bain

Dog Behaviour: The Hidden Influence of Nutrition on Your Dog’s Mood

When we think of dog behaviour, particularly undesirable behaviours, it’s easy to assume that our dogs are being naughty. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth in many cases. Your dog is always trying to communicate, and their behaviour is simply a means of telling you something; it’s our job to learn how to listen.

Through my own dog, Rudi, I’ve learned that dog behaviour problems are rarely what they seem on the surface. With patience, the correct professional guidance, and the proper nutritional support, dogs can learn to feel calmer, more confident, and more comfortable in their environment, which will then translate to their behaviour. 

In this article, I’ll explain the connection between gut health, nutrition, and dog behaviour. I’ll also provide some insights into the diet changes you could make to support better physical and emotional health.

The role of gut health in mood and behaviour

The gut/brain connection and its influence on behaviour

The gut and brain have a direct line of communication, sending messages back and forth in the form of neurotransmitters. Like all mammals (including dogs), our bodies are home to trillions of microorganisms called the microbiome, with many living in the gut. When the gut is unhealthy, or the microbiome is off balance, these signals get messed up, affecting the brain, mood, and behaviour.

Research on the gut-mind connection is forever evolving, showing how lifestyle choices, especially diet, influence the microbiome, which in turn affects behaviour. For example, studies are increasingly finding that anxiety and depression often come with digestive issues, further evidence of the link between emotions and gut health[1].

Meanwhile, Anecdotal reports also clearly flag physiological health complaints as going hand in hand with fear-based reactivity in dogs [2], particularly digestive complaints such as inflammatory bowel disease and acute diarrhoea [3] 

The brain manages many processes in the body, including a dog’s behaviour. When signals are off, the brain can send incorrect cues, leading to behaviour changes, mood swings, and even affecting mental clarity.

The connection between gut health and mood regulation

For the reasons discussed above, gut health plays a significant role in mood and, subsequently, dogs’ behaviour, mental sharpness, and decision-making skills. With such an intrinsic link between the gut and brain, how can behaviour and mood continue to operate as normal if the signals aren’t balanced?

This is one reason, among many, why gut health is so important: a balanced, healthy gut can send the appropriate signals to the brain and all the other organs and systems throughout the body. Simply put, the basis of health starts with the gut, including behavioural health.

To discover more about the importance of dog gut health check out our article, The Secrets of Dog Gut Health.

Influence of mood on behaviour

Behavioural manifestations of a dog’s mood

Dog behaviour problems can manifest in a variety of ways [4]. Depending on the individual emotional state, these can range from slightly concerning to more serious, and in some cases even present a danger to their wellbeing (or the wellbeing of others). Here are a few abnormal behaviours dogs sometimes display when their mood is unbalanced:

  • Destructive behaviours (chewing or scratching furniture, walls, doors, etc.)
  • Excessive panting/drooling
  • House marking/soiling
  • Hyperactivity
  • Barking/whining
  • Reactive/aggressive behaviours (barking, lunging, growling at various stimuli)
  • Compulsive behaviours (chasing tail, pacing, frantic digging, etc.)
  • Lethargy/depression/unwillingness to play or exercise
  • Lack of appetite
  • Displacement behaviours (yawning when not tired, lip licking when not hungry, 

etc.)

Recognising/addressing mood-related behavioural issues

Whilst dog behaviour problems can understandably be frustrating, there’s always a reason behind them. Previous trauma, lack of socialisation, genetics and health conditions all have the potential to negatively affect dogs’ behaviour, as can various other causes of mood imbalances. 

As mentioned above, gut health issues can also affect mood in a number of ways, and it’s up to us, as their trusted humans, to get to the bottom of what’s bothering our dogs.

Whether a dog’s behaviour change is a new development or a long-term issue, a little investigation can go a long way. Some questions to ask yourself might be:

Has your dog recently begun behaving this way? 

Has anything changed or happened in their life recently to influence their behaviour? 

Do they experience regular, frequent or chronic digestive health issues? 

What are they eating every day? 

You might be surprised how much your dog’s diet affects their behaviour. A few simple changes can make a big difference! When dogs get the nutrients they need, their overall health improves, including their brain chemistry, which impacts behaviour.

At the same time, it’s important to seek help from experts like certified dog trainers or behaviourists if your dog has behavioural issues. Combining this with a holistic approach—focusing on diet, living environment, lifestyle, and regular vet check-ups to rule out any health issues—can really help your fur friend.

Natural chemicals that influence mood

Neurotransmitters and their role in behaviour

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that transmit signals between nerve cells. They play a crucial role in regulating mood, sleep, and overall brain function in both humans and dogs. Key neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA, each having specific functions and effects on behaviour.

In dogs, neurotransmitter imbalances can lead to various behavioural issues such as anxiety, aggression, and depression. For instance, low dopamine levels can reduce motivation and increase fearfulness, while balanced serotonin levels can promote calmness and happiness. 

These chemical messengers are produced within the gut, where the bacteria either produce or consume them (or both). Therefore, if the bacteria in the gut are healthy and balanced, the neurotransmitters can operate effectively.

For example, 90% of serotonin is made in the gut, and the microbiome plays a vital role. Serotonin is a crucial element of the gut-brain axis; it links the two ends of the brain-gut axis and has systemic effects such as bone density and metabolism [5]. Low serotonin concentrations have been linked to behavioural disorders in dogs, such as increased aggressive behaviour [6] and impulsivity [7].

The influence of diet on neurotransmitters and behaviour

I’ve just mentioned that gut health is critical to neurotransmitter production and operation. Therefore, diet has a direct impact (either positive or negative) on how these chemicals behave. When a dog’s diet is appropriate for its internal environment, it provides essential nutrients that promote gut health, encouraging healthy bacteria to thrive. 

On the other hand, a dog fed mostly (or only) processed food is likely to receive little to no essential nutrients in its diet. This causes the gut bacteria population to become imbalanced, leading to compromised neurotransmitter production and signalling, which contributes to the likelihood of dogs developing behaviour problems [8].

The shortcomings of a processed kibble diet

While kibble was invented to be a convenient, affordable, and shelf-stable way to feed our dogs, unfortunately its benefits end there. The process of creating kibble often involves the use of low-quality ingredients, of which most nutrient content is essentially made null and void through high-heat processing. Not only that, but the unnecessary and intolerable additions to processed food diets cause dogs’ digestive systems to behave in unnatural ways, further upsetting the delicate balance of the gut microbiome and neurotransmitter efficiency.

Admittedly, not all commercially processed dog food is equal (some are better than others), but dogs are never intended to digest intensively processed food. When exposed to intensive processing methods, the nutritional composition of any fresh ingredient, even the absolute best, will be altered; and not for the better. 

Just as humans thrive when eating fresh, natural, wholefood ingredients, so do dogs!  

The process of cooking proteins causes their fats to oxidise, promoting health risks in dogs (such as pancreatitis). The high carbohydrate content puts strain on dogs’ digestive systems, forcing them to become more alkaline as opposed to their naturally acidic state. 

Years of feeding these foods leads to poor gut health, which contributes to a host of potential health concerns, including dog behaviour problems

Learn more of the truth about fats for dogs in our all you need to know guide or explore more reasons to Ditch the Dry.

Transitioning to a species-appropriate diet

Thankfully, it’s never too late to change what dogs eat. Even senior dogs who have eaten kibble their whole lives can benefit from switching to a fresh, wholefood diet that provides the essential nutrients required for canine health (I’ll discuss these in a moment). While the transition may take a little time and thoughtful planning, it’s well worth it to see the positive physical and behavioural changes in your dog.

For generally healthy dogs who aren’t prone to digestive upsets, it’s usually safe to switch straight over to their new diet. They may experience mild gastrointestinal symptoms for a few days as they adjust, but this is temporary. However, for older dogs or those with existing health issues, a more gradual transition is best. Read our comprehensive guide on how to make the switch with confidence.

Need help with your dog’s diet?

Contact ProDog’s expert team today for FREE tailored canine nutrition advice
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Why dogs need meat

Nutritional requirements of dogs

Dogs’ internal environments are naturally equipped for digesting meat. Their digestive systems are highly acidic, perfect for breaking down proteins, assimilating nutrients, and killing potentially harmful bacteria. Therefore, a natural, meat-based diet, particularly a raw dog food diet is most beneficial for their health, as it offers the essential nutrients required for optimal canine wellbeing. 

Read our article, The Benefits of Raw Food, for a detailed guide on how species-appropriate nutrition can benefit your dog. 

A raw food diet, also known as a ‘BARF’ diet, is predominantly meat-based. It includes organ meats and raw bones, which, in combination, deliver the proteins, essential amino acids, healthy fat sources, essential fatty acids [9], and vitamins and minerals dogs require for basic functional health. Small amounts of plant fibre, such as fruits, vegetables, and herbs, are also helpful, as these provide additional vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants.

If you’re new to raw feeding our guide, Raw Dog Food for Beginners, maybe helpful.

Contrary to popular belief, dogs have no requirements for carbohydrates in their diet whatsoever. Grains and starches are unnecessary and most commonly used as fillers, which can alter dogs’ gastrointestinal pH balance and carry the potential to cause health issues; behavioural and otherwise.

Benefits of animal proteins for behaviour and overall health

As mentioned, animal proteins are highly beneficial to canine health. Because dogs’ digestive systems are naturally capable of breaking down proteins, fats, and bones, the nutrients within these ingredients are easily absorbed and assimilated, providing dogs with the sustenance they need to remain healthy.

When fed a highly processed diet, dogs’ GI tracts become more alkaline, which allows harmful bacteria to thrive. This often results in digestive upsets, allergies, and other diet-related health concerns, including dog behaviour problems. 

As mentioned earlier, the connection between the gut and brain relies heavily on the health and optimal functioning of both organs in order to communicate efficiently. When the gut is deprived of the nutrients it requires, signals become compromised, causing the behavioural regions of the brain that affect mood and behaviour to follow suit.

For real-life inspiration, read our case study on Lily: the Romanian street dog whose allergies and behavioural challenges were improved through feeding a species-appropriate raw diet.

Importance of hydration

Tips for ensuring proper hydration

It’s worth noting that while natural, whole ingredients go a long way towards canine health, appropriate hydration is also essential. The body cannot survive without adequate fluid intake, so ensuring dogs receive proper hydration contributes to their behavioural and overall health. The brain is 85% water, which it requires to maintain functionality. The same goes for the gut: water is essential for proper digestion, nutrient absorption, and waste evacuation.

It’s not always possible to ensure dogs drink enough water for their individual health needs, though providing access to fresh water at all times is a great first step. However, their hydration requirements can also be met through moisture in the diet (i.e; through feeding raw), offering hydrating treats or snacks such as bone broth or frozen treats, and even making their water seem more appealing by adding something tasty (and healthy) such as bone broth to it. Read my article on dog hydration for a detailed guide on how to hydrate your dog.

Herbs, prebiotics, probiotics, and supplements for gut health support

Ingredients that promote gut health and balanced behaviour

Aside from a natural, species-appropriate diet, there are additional ingredients that also contribute towards dogs’ behaviour and overall health. Here are a few I recommend: 

Prebiotics

​​Prebiotics are foods that contain a particular type of fibre that is food for friendly gut bacteria. This promotes their population in your dog’s gut, leading to balanced digestive health and more natural, balanced dog behaviour. Prebiotic foods include leafy green vegetables, berries, pumpkin, chia, flax seeds, and tripe (which most dogs LOVE).

Probiotics

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that feed off prebiotic foods, and their presence in the gut is crucial. They serve many functions, including supporting a healthy microbiome and gut environment. ProDog offers a variety of probiotic strains, each helpful in their own way.

Colostrum

Colostrum is the “first milk” of mother cows. It is full of growth factors, immunoglobulins, proteins, and peptides, among other nutrients. It promotes balanced digestion and regulates the immune response, which helps to minimise allergies and food intolerances. 

Digest

ProDog’s Digest supplement is designed to resolve dogs’ digestive health issues, ultimately contributing to healthy dog behaviour. It’s a combination of whole-food ingredients known for supporting gut health, such as chlorella, pumpkin seed powder (the prebiotics mentioned earlier), liquorice root, and marshmallow root.

Boost 

Boost is our vitamin, mineral, probiotic, and antioxidant supplement, and it is an excellent addition to the canine diet. Its all-around nutrient content benefits gut health issues and dog behaviour problems. Its combination of nutrients supports the gut, skin and coat, immune system, brain function, and overall health of dogs.

Supplements by ProDog

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How to incorporate supplements into your dog’s diet

Adding supplements to your dog’s diet is simple, especially with options like ProDog’s food toppers, which even picky eaters enjoy. Just make sure to read labels carefully, especially if your dog is on multiple supplements, as some ingredients might not mix well together.

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t worry! ProDog’s canine nutrition advice team is here to help; contact us today. We’ll make sure you have all the information you need to start feeding our supplements and food to your dog with confidence. We’ll answer your questions and tailor our advice to your dog’s unique health and behavioural needs.

Dog behaviour and nutrition: The connection between gut and behavioural health

It might be a surprise to learn that your dog’s diet can affect their behaviour, and you wouldn’t be alone. In fact, many people miss the connection between gut and brain health and the impact they can have on a dog’s behaviour.

Thankfully, poor gut health and improper nutrition can be corrected, and this has the potential to carry over into dogs’ behaviour. When dogs receive the nutrients their bodies and brains need to thrive, their health improves, and they feel better overall. 

Dog behaviour FAQs

What are the signs that my dog’s diet is affecting its behaviour negatively?

The behaviour itself would be the most obvious sign, though dog behaviour problems aren’t always related to diet. If your dog is eats a highly processed diet, and/or experiences digestive health issues, that would indicate a potential link to their mood/behaviour.

Can changing my dog’s diet help with specific behaviour problems?

Potentially, yes, especially if they’re eating food that doesn’t provide the essential nutrients canines require for optimal health. See the “Why dogs need meat” section above for a more thorough explanation.

How can I transition my dog to a new diet without causing behavioural issues?

A diet change, especially to a more healthy diet, is unlikely to result in behavioural issues. It would more likely result in improved behaviour, as your dog will be receiving the nutrition it needs to feel better. 

For tips to help with fussy eaters, our article, How To Help a Fussy Dog Eat, written by ProDog’s Canine Behaviourist, Caroline Spencer, may be helpful.

What role do treats and supplements play in influencing my dog’s behaviour?

High-quality, species-appropriate, natural dog treats can be very beneficial in the training process when working on shaping dogs’ behaviour to a more balanced state. Supplements targeted towards gut and brain health contribute to dogs’ wellbeing through restoring balance to the gut and brain, which both contribute to behaviour.

How often should I feed my dog, and does feeding frequency affect dog behaviour?

That all depends on your individual dog; every dog has a routine that works for them. Feeding frequency shouldn’t affect dog behaviour in most cases unless they’re being underfed (or overfed), which may make them grouchy! To establish how much raw dog food you should be feeding our handy Raw Dog Food Calculator will help.

Should I consider a homemade or raw diet for my dog to improve behaviour?

Absolutely. Homemade diets can be excellent, though they require lots of planning and work on your part. ProDog’s raw dog food ranges contain the appropriate balance of high-quality nutrients to promote health in all dogs, and they can be shipped right to your front door.

Where can I find reliable information and resources on dog nutrition and behaviour?

The ProDog blog is an excellent resource for nutritional and behavioural information for dogs and their owners. It features expert articles on many different topics and answers to all your questions. You can also contact us with any queries; we’re happy to help.

References

  1. Cryan JP, O’Mahoney S. The microbiome-gut-brain axis: from bowel to behavior. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2011;23:187–192. Doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2982.2010.01664.x.
  2. Connell,P. Aggression, Fear and Gut Health. . . Joined at the Hip?. The Other End of The Leash 2019. Accessed Nov 2022.
  3. Jan S. Suchodolski et al. The Fecal Microbiome in Dogs with Acute Diarrhea and Idiopathic Inflammatory Bowel Disease. 2012. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051907
  4. Dinwoodie, I., Dwyer, B., Zottola, V., Gleason, D., Dodman, N. Jul 2019. Demographics and comorbidity of behavior problems in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior;, 32:62-71. Doi: 10.1016/jveb.2019.04.007
  5. Jenkins, T.A.; Nguyen, J.C.D.; Polglaze, K.E.; Bertrand, P.P. Influence of Tryptophan and Serotonin on Mood and Cognition with a Possible Role of the Gut-Brain Axis. Nutrients 2016, 8, 56. Doi: 10.3390/nu8010056
  6. Çakiroglu D., Meral Y., Sancak A.A., Çifti G. Relationship between the serum concentrations of serotonin and lipids and aggression in dogs. Vet. Rec. 2007;161:59–61. Doi: 10.1136/vr.161.2.59.
  7. Reisner I.R., Mann J.J., Stanley M., Huang Y., Houpt K.A. Comparison of cerebrospinal fluid monoamine metabolite levels in dominant-aggressive and non-aggressive dogs. Brain Res. 1996;714:57–64. Doi: 10.1016/0006-8993(95)01464-0.
  8. Riva, J., Bondiolotti, G., Michelazzi, M., Verga, M., Carenzi, C. Nov 2008. Anxiety related behavioural disorders and neurotransmitters in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science;, 114(1-2):168-181. Doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.01.020
  9. Kaur, H., Singla, A., Singh, S., Shilwant, S., Kaur, R. 2020. Role of Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Canine Health: A Review. International Journal of Current Microbiology and Applied Sciences;, 9(3). Doi: 10.20546/ijcmas.2020.903.259

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