How Your Dog’s Food Affects His Mood

By PetMD Editorial on Jun. 13, 2014

Nutrition has an enormous impact on the health of our pets. But have you considered how it may affect their behavior as well? Here are three ways diet can directly impact your pet's behavior.

1. Feeding Times

It's no longer considered standard regimen to feed your pet once a day or leave food out all day — also known as free-feeding — unless recommended by your veterinarian due to a medical reason. "Just think about how you would feel (and look) if you were only able to eat once every 24 hours, or kept nibbling on a high-calorie food all day long," says Nan Arthur, dog behavior expert and owner of Whole Dog Training. Arthur recommends asking your veterinarian if feeding your adult dog 2-3 times per day would be better for his or her regimen. Often combining exercise with slight feeding routine adjustments can help improve the overall demeanor of a dog.

2. Pet Food Ingredients

Pet food ingredients can also affect your pet's behavior in various ways. Take the fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which is sometimes added to puppy and kitten food. DHA has been shown to increase mental acuity in puppies and kittens, says Dr. Lorie Huston. In fact, according to the results of some studies puppies eating dog food which contain DHA have been found to be more trainable. Certain antioxidants are also considered a great "brain food" for senior dogs and cats. For example, a series of studies conducted on dogs1 found that older dogs provided with an antioxidant-enriched diet were able to learn complex tasks with more success than those on a control diet. This, researchers hypothesized, was consistent with the assumption that oxidative damage contributes to brain aging in dogs.

Another study2 that used an antioxidant-enriched diet found that older dogs (≥7) were less likely to suffer from age-related behavioral changes associated with cognitive decline, such as excessive licking and patterned pacing. Dogs consuming the antioxidant-enriched diet were also able to recognize their family members and other animals more easily than the control group, as well as display greater attributes of agility.

3. Unbalanced Diet

Health issues that may stem from feeding your pet a poorly balanced diet can lead to a whole host of other behavioral issues you normally wouldn't encounter. For example, a dog or cat that is suffering from a urinary tract disorder brought on by diet may be unusually irritable and stressed from the pain and discomfort caused by the urinary condition. “The body is a very complex organic place where biochemical reactions are going on,” explains Dr. Kerri Marshall, chief veterinary officer at Trupanion. In fact, dogs and cats require more than 50 key nutrients — and each much be carefully balanced in your pet's food.

Consult Your Veterinarian

The best way to keep your pet both happy and healthy is to go to your veterinarian for regular examinations and routinely discuss dietary needs with them. Any sudden mood change in your pet may indicate an underlying nutritional, behavioral, or health issue that must be addressed.

Image via Shutterstock


Milgram NW, Head E, Muggenburg B, et al. Landmark dis- crimination learning in the dog: effects of age, an antioxidant fortified food, and cognitive strategy. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2002;26:679–695.

Cotman CW, Head E, Muggenburg BA, et al. Brain aging in the canine: a diet enriched in antioxidants reduces cognitive dys- function. Neurobiol Aging 2002;23:809–818.

Ikeda-Douglas CJ, Zicker SC, Estrada J, et al. Prior expe- rience, antioxidants, and mitochondrial cofactors improve cognitive function in aged beagles. Vet Ther 2004;5:5–16.

Milgram NW, Zicker SC, Head E, et al. Dietary enrich- ment counteracts age-associated cognitive dysfunction in canines. Neurobiol Aging 2002;23:737–745.

Dodd CE, Zicker SC, Jewell DE, et al. Can a fortified food affect the behavioral manifestations of age-related cognitive decline in dogs? Vet Med 2003;98:396–408.

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