How Your Dog's Behavior is Linked to Nutrition

February 24 2012

Just as we humans need good nutrition to function at our best, your canine companion also requires a balanced diet for optimal health and wellbeing. With proper nourishment, your dog can grow and develop to his full potential, enabling him to perform both physical and mental activities with vigor and joy.

The diet you select for your dog may affect not only his health but also his behavior. A clear link exists between a well-balanced, biologically appropriate diet and improved behavior. The right balance of good-quality nutrition can decrease your dog's levels of stress, helping him be calmer and more relaxed. By providing the proper nutrition his body needs, your dog will have less of a tendency to exhibit unwanted behaviors.

Of equal importance to the basic nutrients a dog needs is the quality of the source of those nutrients. Most animal nutritionists agree that a well-balanced, healthy canine diet should contain only high-quality ingredients, with no extras like food coloring, unspecified animal by-product or chemical preservatives.

Basic Nutritional Needs

The following information provides the basics of nutrition for healthy adult dogs. Due to a dog's age, breed, activity level, metabolism and health needs, it is important to talk with your veterinarian about determining the right diet for your dog. And remember, a higher quality food generally means a healthier dog and thus fewer visits to the veterinarian throughout the dog's life.

Proteins
Called "the building blocks for life," proteins are part of every cell tissue and organ and are thus essential to a dog's health. Protein helps boost your dog's energy and regenerate his muscles.

When food proteins are digested, they are turned into smaller sub-components of the protein called amino acids. A "complete protein" provides all of the essential amino acids your dog needs to maintain good health. Complete proteins are animal based and include meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Whatever the protein source in your dog's food, the best quality food uses one primary source of protein; for example, "chicken" not "poultry," "beef" not "meat."

An incomplete protein is low in one or more essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins are found in vegetables, cereals and soy. Because these proteins are not "complete," your dog's body is being deprived of essential amino acids he needs for good health. Your dog is an opportunistic carnivore (meaning he prefers to eat meat but will eat anything to survive) and requires animal-based protein to thrive, unless your veterinarian recommends otherwise.

Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates, a general term for fibers and starches, provide the fuel that keeps your dog on the go. Carbohydrates ("carbs") turn into glucose, a pure form of energy vital to your dog's energy metabolism. As in humans, a dog's body can use glucose immediately or store it in the liver and muscles for when it is needed. Also like humans, too many carbs can turn into fat.

There is much debate among animal nutritionists with regard to the canine's need for carbohydrates. Canines in the wild eat a very small percentage of carbs. Most domesticated dogs today are fed manufactured foods, which are convenient and inexpensive. However, some manufactured dog foods contain ingredients for energy that are cheaper than meat-usually corn or other grains. Thus, today's dogs get far more carbs than their wild ancestors did.

While carbs add bulk, variety and taste to the canine diet, some dogs do not tolerate a higher amount of carbs from grains and can develop allergies or display signs of protein deficiency. The source of the carbohydrates and the way in which they are prepared are important factors in how well the dog's system digests and utilizes the food. Bear in mind, though, some dogs do just fine with grains while others thrive only on a no- or low-grain diet.

Fiber
While not considered a nutrient, fiber for dogs is necessary to aid digestion. Too much fiber can cause loose stools or diarrhea, while too little can lead to constipation or dry hard stools. Fiber is derived from plants (fruits and vegetables) and grains prepared in a certain way (bran). In general, high-fiber foods are not good for dogs with high energy requirements, such as puppies and working dogs, as too much fiber may impede food absorption and not provide the correct nutrient balance needed to sustain their activity and growth.

Fats
Fats provide your pet with more than twice the energy of proteins or carbohydrates. Derived from both animal fats and vegetable oils, fats are essential to cell membrane structure, for the production of some hormones and for the absorption and utilization of some vitamins. Fats promote healthy skin and coat and provide the body with insulation and protection for internal organs. Finally-and most importantly, from a dog's point of view-fats make food taste great.

Fats are composed of smaller units called fatty acids which contribute to a dog's health in different ways. A group of fats called "essential fatty acids" must be provided in the diet because they cannot be synthesized by a dog in sufficient amounts. These include specific types of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which are sometimes given as supplements to help prevent inflammation, arthritis and dry skin.

Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are nutrients that every living body requires for normal growth and development. Minerals and most vitamins cannot be synthesized in the body and, therefore, must be provided in a dog's diet. Dogs need a precise balance of vitamins and minerals for optimal health.

Vitamins are organic substances found in plant and animal sources. Minerals are inorganic elements that come from the earth. Animals acquire all the vitamins and minerals they need from the foods they eat, which is why eating a complete and balanced diet is essential for good health. Talk to your veterinarian about whether your dog needs a vitamin or mineral supplement for preventive health or to improve his current condition. In addition, consider rotating the types of foods you feed your dog, allowing him to ingest a wider variety of different nutrients from a range of foods.

Nutrition's Effects on Behavior

Your pet's behavior can be greatly affected by the kind of nutrition he gets. Many animal nutritionists agree that an imbalance in a dog's behavior can sometimes be linked to an imbalance in his diet. Just as with humans, a poor diet can result in poor health, which can lead to poor behaviors.

The following are some diet-related unwanted behaviors or conditions our dog behavioral 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 diarrhea. 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 behaviors, 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 feces)-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, our trainers have seen marked improvement in dogs' behaviors by switching them to a more biologically appropriate diet in conjunction with a sensible training program. A biologically appropriate diet includes considerations for a dog's size, activity level, current healthy status, and age.

Three More "Essential Nutrients"

There are three more "essential nutrients" we believe every dog needs for a long and healthy life:

Water
Water is vital for life to exist-it is involved in every function of the body and is found in every cell, tissue and organ. Water makes up about two-thirds of an adult dog's body weight. All dogs need access to clean, fresh water in order to maintain good health, which includes proper urinary tract function.

Exercise
To ensure the diet you so thoughtfully feed your pooch yields the best health, be sure he gets plenty of exercise appropriate for his age, breed, size, etc. Exercise is essential for your dog to maintain a balance of physical, mental and emotional health. Ask your veterinarian about the most beneficial exercise program for your pet.

Love
Dogs are social creatures and naturally need and seek a strong leader in order to feel safe and secure within their social structure. For your dog to regard you as "top dog" in your family unit, you must set rules and apply them consistently, and praise your dog's good behavior. Dogs have a language of their own, and once you understand and learn to "speak" your dog's language, you will enjoy many happy years of canine companionship.

All of us who've experienced the unbridled joy of a dog's unconditional love want to do all we can to provide our canine companions with a full and healthy life. Understanding the vital link between nutrition and behavior is an important factor for all dog owners. Wholesome nutrition, along with proper care, exercise, training, and a healthy helping of love are all part of a holistic approach to animal wellness.

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