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Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Dog Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of dog nutrition.

Can Diet be Used to Help Anxious Dogs?

February 01, 2013 / (4) comments

I had to deal with an extremely anxious patient a few weeks ago. Chico is a tiny Chihuahua who seemingly views all the world as a threat (a not unreasonable outlook when you weigh only four pounds). He trusts his owners — up to a point — but even they become suspect when they start giving off the wrong vibes.

Needless to say, this made giving the medication that Chico needed challenging. Thankfully, he still had an appetite, so hiding his meds in irresistible tidbits did the trick and he’s feeling much better now.

Chico’s case got me to thinking about treating canine anxiety. The one thing that even the most anxious dogs eventually have to do is eat. I did a quick literature search to see if altering a dog’s diet could be helpful in the treatment of canine anxiety and found this interesting study.


Forty-four privately owned dogs that were determined to have anxiety-related behavioral problems were first fed a control diet for eight weeks. Then, they were then transitioned to another diet that was supplemented with L-tryptophan and alpha-casozepine. L-tryptophan is the amino acid that is credited with the relaxed feelings many report after over-indulging on the Thanksgiving turkey, and alpha-casozepine is a component of milk with activity similar to that of Valium and related drugs. (I wonder if alpha-casozepine was responsible for the smiley "milk coma" my daughter used to fall into after nursing.)

Owners evaluated their dogs’ behavior after seven weeks of eating both the control and the study diet and reported fewer anxiety-related problems after their dogs ate the supplemented diet. However, I take this finding with a big grain of salt since the placebo effect could have played a major role in owners perceiving an improvement in their dog’s anxiety.

The second part of the study is much more interesting. Two urine samples were collected from each dog after they had been eating the control diet for seven weeks and again after eating the study diet for seven weeks.

The first of the urine samples in each pair was collected at home (prestress) and the second after the dogs had their toenails clipped at a veterinary clinic (poststress). The samples were evaluated using a urine cortisol to creatinine ratio (UCCR). High concentrations of urinary cortisol are associated with stress, which was confirmed by statistical analysis revealing that the dogs had higher UCCRs in their poststress urine samples regardless of what diet they were eating.

Here’s the neat bit: The increase in UCCR between the prestress and poststress samples was significantly lower when dogs were eating the L-tryptophan/alpha-casozepine supplemented diet. So, maybe I’m wrong in discounting the owners’ perception that their dogs were less anxious on the study diet.

Diet alone won’t cure dogs of their anxiety, but it looks like it could be used as part of a comprehensive therapeutic plan.

Dr. Jennifer Coates


Effects of prescription diet on dealing with stressful situations and performance of anxiety-related behaviors in privately owned anxious dogs. Kato M, Miyaji K, Ohtani N, Ohta M. J VET BEHAV 7:21-26, 2012.

Image: Cris Kelly / via Shutterstock

Comments  4

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  • Can feed be calming?
    02/01/2013 06:42pm

    I owned and showed horses for many years. In horses, various feeds are blamed for making horses "high" and there are many "calming" supplements on the market. A nervous horse is almost always potentially more dangerous than a nervous dog simply because of sheer size (they won't mean to hurt you when the run over the top of you)and beacuase riding a horse who decides to run off wildly can be really hazardous to the health of horse, rider and anyone else nearby!

    Over time, I came to the conclusion that it was not possible to feed a horse calm. Horses tend to be "hyper" when they do not get enough exercise and some horses are naturally more energetic or high-strung than others. Horses will also get excited when taken to new or unfamiliar places, espcially when they are young and inexperienced.

    I tried calming formulations and for the most part they did not make much difference. In one horse, they did seem to help, but he was generally the most sensible of all the horses I owned anyway. As a youngster, he still needed lunging on arrival to the showgrounds, but he did seem to calm down a bit more quickly with the paste.

    I'm really skeptical that feed makes much difference in calming any creature. (Obviously, a bad diet that makes the dog feel ill, or causes him to itch, or makes him obese can create personality problems, but that is a different issue.) I have a nervous sheltie I compete with, and mostly, I try to "walk him calm." He almost always does better in his second class than his first, so work does make a difference. Of course, if something "scary" happens in the first class, then I have a problem!!

    As for me, if I am nervous, the only thing that calms me at all is exercise (and patting my dog, of course!) I walk dogs and work out every morning, and if I am having a tough day I often do a second workout in the afternoon. I tell people I need to lunge myself!

    It would be nice if there were an anti-anxiety diet, and I suppose it is possible, but I suspect that would be way to easy ever to be true!

  • Urine Sample
    02/01/2013 11:47pm

    "However, I take this finding with a big grain of salt since the placebo effect could have played a major role in owners perceiving an improvement in their dog’s anxiety."

    You're probably right on this. If the owners expected the critter to be calm, the humans were likely putting out "calm vibes".

    The urine testing is fascinating, though. I'd love to try something similar with cats, but the thought of trying to get a urine sample at home... well, you get the idea.

  • 02/18/2014 03:24pm


  • Dry food is not an answer
    02/18/2014 03:37pm

    This dry dog food shouldn't be fed to any dogs. It's main ingredients are : "Brewer’s Rice, Chicken Meal, Corn, Chicken Fat, Wheat Gluten, and Wheat". Essentially grain (rice), more grain (corn), and still grain (wheat) with some dried up chicken meal thrown in. If you really care about your anxious dog's dietary health, feed it a nutritious diet of fresh or canned meats and vegetables and a drop or two of an anti-anxiety supplement like Rescue Remedy, and don't fall for marketing ploys like this.