Behavioural issues in pets are common and can have a huge impact on daily life, causing stress for both them and the owner. Diet can affect behaviour for many reasons but it’s also important to rule out medical causes.
Medical conditions that can change behaviour:
Not all dogs show pain in the same way and this can sometimes make it difficult to know when a dog is suffering. They will only cry out when the pain is unbearable, but more subtle signs can include walking differently, finding it difficult to settle down and rest in the evening, stretching more often or even just being less keen to interact with people or dogs.
It’s important to consider pain if your pet has a change in behaviour. A veterinary consultation is the best place to start.
IBD, Pancreatitis and Osteoarthritis are all common causes of pain in dogs and cats. In these cases, dietary management can play a role in helping to reduce pain. VetChef can provide specialist diets for dogs with these health conditions, which can improve long-term control, reducing pain and improving related behaviour issues.
Pets that are itchy much of the time can also be irritable. Ear infections are also common in allergy-prone dogs and can be especially painful, sometimes causing pets that have previously been very tolerant to become snappy or withdrawn.
A visit to the vet is always the first port of call, but if your vet thinks that there might be a food allergy underpinning the itch, then dietary changes (for example, elimination-diet tests or adjustment of fatty acids) can be helpful in treating allergic skin disease - and these diets can be provided by VetChef, working with your dog's personal VetChef nutritional advisor.
For pets where there is no medical underlying cause:
In cases where the behavioural issue is not the result of a medical problem, there are still dietary changes that can help to support the pet.
Providing meals that are more interesting, or that require more licking or chewing (kong toys and likkimats are great for this!) can help to provide mental stimulation for highly-strung or overly excitable dogs. Feeding home-prepared meals or meal-toppers may help to alleviate boredom and reduce stress.
Can altering specific nutrients help with behavioural modification? Yes, there is evidence that this approach might help pets with anxiety or aggression.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that is found in certain foods such as turkey. There is some evidence that using increased levels of tryptophan in combination with an otherwise lower-protein diet can calm anxiety and reduce signs of aggression. (1)
Magnesium can become depleted at times of stress. It is also important to realise that chronic illness or difficult changes in daily life may also cause magnesium levels to drop. They are even known to fall during the winter in comparison to summer!
Magnesium is required by the body to protect it from external stresses, so pets with chronically high stress levels (behavioural or medical) may need higher levels of it in their diet. Sweet potatoes and green leafy vegetables are good sources. Supplementation of magnesium is sometimes indicated but should be done under veterinary or nutritionist supervision.
Studies in humans suggest that increasing omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA may be correlated with reduced aggression and improved attention span. We do not yet know whether this works in pets, but supplementary EPA and DHA in the form of fish oils has wide-reaching health benefits. Therefore those recipes intended for pets with behavioural issues will generally contain higher than usual levels of these omega 3 fatty acids.
B-vitamins are vital for the synthesis of neurotransmitters (signalling molecules) like serotonin. Deficiencies in B vitamins has been shown to negatively affect mental health in adolescent children. B vitamins are very safe and - whilst we do not yet know if this effect is also seen in pets - we at Vetchef will formulate recipes for anxious pets to include higher than usual levels of B vitamins.
Herbs: Herbal additions to food may have some positive effect on behaviour, but the underlying mechanisms are often complex and rely on a full understanding of concurrent medical conditions and of the individual pet. Available herbal preparations on the market also vary a lot in quality. For this reason, recipes on the Vetchef platform do not generally contain herbs intended to treat medical problems. An excellent way to look at herbs for your pet is to contact a veterinarian with training in herbal medicine. They can discuss your dog and his/her medical history, then provide accurately formulated herbal preparations to support them. If herbal medicine is something that you’d like to look into, the British association of veterinary herbalists will help you to find a vet local to you.
Disclaimer - if your pet is showing behavioural signs or aggression that you think might be linked to a medical condition please visit your vet in the first instance. Nutritional management is intended to be used in conjunction with and not instead of medical intervention. For any behavioural issue it is important to use dietary modification in COMBINATION with advice from a qualified behaviourist for the best outcomes.
Small Animal Clinical Nutrition - Mark Morris Institute