Can Diet be Used to Help Anxious Dogs?

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Feb. 1, 2013

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

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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