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Can a Dog’s Diet Affect their Behaviour?

by Lauren Samet

It’s the question that many have poured huge amounts of money into answering: how can food affect our pets’ behaviours? Research into this is continually being investigated by scientists; experts from nutritionists, veterinarians and behaviourists are all curious to find out whether a dog’s diet can impact its behaviour, and whether this can influence its wellbeing.

The need for a suitable diet is one of the 5 basic needs that form an animal’s welfare, but its impact can go further than just nutrition.

Rest & Digest

To start off with the simple side of things, a dog’s diet can affect how often it needs to go to the toilet. Being fortunate humans, we may take this factor completely for granted. In the UK, we have access to toilets mostly wherever we go, but the same is not always the case for our pets.

Knowing a dog’s routine can help owners know how much access their dog needs to go outdoors (this is a particularly important factor for working and assistance dogs that are relied upon for crucial duties). A change to a dog’s food may mean a change to the total fibre content of their diet, which may lead to changes in their daily toileting routine. It is therefore important to change a dog’s food over gradually and understand that a change in their food may result in a change to defecation amount, consistency and frequency.

Pleasure in Eating

Food can bring us great pleasure and it is just the same for our pets. Not only can a delicious meal be satisfying both physically (the fulling of being full and satiated) and mentally (stimulating the brain’s reward pathways), if presented appropriately it can be used to relieve boredom. Here we must urge caution: feeding a dog excessively because it enjoys it is not of benefit to them. Human habits that lead to overweight or obese pets are unfair on the animal and are counterintuitive to good health and welfare. If your dog enjoys their food then rather than overfeeding them, why not prolong their feeding process?

Feeding enrichment for pets is becoming more and more commonplace, with a number of feeding toys, puzzles and accessories that can help your dog get the most from their mealtimes. Contrafreeloading is a term which means animals show a preference to work for their food, even in the presence of identical freely available food. It’s a known concept in pet dogs therefore why not do your dog a favour and make them work for their food?

TIP: feeding enrichment doesn’t need to be expensive: scattering your dogs’ kibble in the garden for them to find or hiding small piles around the house for them to sniff out are free and easy alternatives. Even this could make a difference to your dog’s daily routines and general wellbeing.

Relieving boredom and providing increased positive experiences for your pets can reduce unwanted behaviours and encourage more natural, positive behaviours in your dog. Many dogs spend excessive amounts of time inactive, but it can be tricky to tell resting apart from boredom. While it’s important that your dog can find peace and quiet in his or her daily routine, if you suspect your dog could benefit from a bit more fun in their life, then why not give feeding enrichment a go. You’ll likely see more diversity in their feeding behaviour and, hopefully, have a more satisfied dog at the end of it!

Behavioural Nutraceuticals

Now we have the practical sides of diet and behaviour out of the way, you are probably wondering about the nutritional side of the equation. Before we discuss the evidence, a disclaimer: however perfect a dog’s diet might be, it’s no compensation for optimising their daily routines, good training and an understanding of their behaviour.

The term functional ingredient or “nutraceutical” is used to describe a dietary component that has a positive impact on an organism’s health. However, in reality, nutraceuticals have no legal or regulatory meaning. Therefore it’s important to be aware of what scientific evidence exists before deciding whether to trial such products. Here are just a few ingredients with some scientific support for their impact on dog behaviour:


Tryptophan is an amino acid which plays a role in the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is sometimes referred to as the “happy chemical” due to its role in experiencing happiness. The availability of tryptophan for serotonin’s production mainly depends on diet. Also, its ratio to other amino acids in the diet appears to also be important for function.

Studies have found links between low plasma tryptophan levels and fear in dogs. Clinical studies have also suggested tryptophan supplementation is linked to a reduction in stress-related behaviours and aggression in dogs. As with other behaviourally-supportive veterinary nutraceuticals, tryptophan is often combined with other nutraceuticals to achieve best results.


L-Theanine is an amino acid usually found in tea (in fact, PG tips highlighted it in an advertising campaign a few years ago). In dogs, studies exist which suggest L-Theanine may support noise phobias, fear of strangers, and storm-related anxieties. L-Theanine is commonly found in veterinary formulated diets and is thought to function via increasing the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter levels (GABA, serotonin, and dopamine) in specific regions associated with emotion.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, known as the omega 3 fatty acids, are essential to the canine diet and are considered vital in the development and support of neural tissues in puppies. They have also been linked to reducing the signs of cognitive decline (sometimes referred to as “doggy dementia”) in aging dogs.


A complete and well-balanced diet designed specifically for dogs should provide your pooch with all the nutritional building blocks it needs for behavioural wellbeing. However, if you’re looking for a complementary supplement to assist with this then Vitapaws Pet Calm for Dogs could be an additional dietary choice you wish to try. Always seek veterinary advice if you are unsure about supplementing your dog’s diet and follow manufacturers’ feeding guidelines when feeding.  If you are worried about your dog’s behaviour or are seeking further support with unwanted behaviour, seek advice from a recognised canine behaviourist via the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC).

References & Further Reading
Araujo, J. A., de Rivera, C., Ethier, J. L., Landsberg, G. M., Denenberg, S., Arnold, S., & Milgram, N. W. (2010). ANXITANE® tablets reduce fear of human beings in a laboratory model of anxiety-related behavior. Journal of Veterinary Behavior5(5), 268-275.
Berteselli, G. V., & Michelazzi, M. (2007). Use of L-theanine tablets (Anxitane™) and behaviour modification for treatment of phobias in dog: A preliminary study. In International Veterinary Behavior Meeting (pp. 185-186). Fondazione Iniziative Zooprofilattiche e Zootecniche.
Bosch, G., Beerda, B., Hendriks, W. H., Van der Poel, A. F. B., & Verstegen, M. W. A. (2007). Impact of nutrition on canine behaviour: current status and possible mechanisms. Nutrition research reviews20(2), 180-194.
Bosch, G., Beerda, B., Beynen, A. C., van der Borg, J. A., van der Poel, A. F., & Hendriks, W. H. (2009). Dietary tryptophan supplementation in privately owned mildly anxious dogs. Applied animal behaviour science121(3-4), 197-205.
DeNapoli, J. S., Dodman, N. H., Shuster, L., Rand, W. M., & Gross, K. L. (2000). Effect of dietary protein content and tryptophan supplementation on dominance aggression, territorial aggression, and hyperactivity in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association217(4), 504-508.
Fernstrom, J. D., & Wurtman, R. J. (1972). Brain serotonin content: physiological regulation by plasma neutral amino acids. Science, 178(4059), 414-416.
Heinemann, K. M., Waldron, M. K., Bigley, K. E., Lees, G. E., & Bauer, J. E. (2005). Long-chain (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty acids are more efficient than α-linolenic acid in improving electroretinogram responses of puppies exposed during gestation, lactation, and weaning. The Journal of nutrition135(8), 1960-1966.
Michelazzi, M., Berteselli, G., Minero, M., & Cavallone, E. (2010). Effectiveness of L-theanine and behavioral therapy in the treatment of noise phobias in dogs. Journal of veterinary behavior5(1), 34-35.
Milgram, N. W., Zicker, S. C., Head, E., Muggenburg, B. A., Murphey, H., Ikeda-Douglas, C. J., & Cotman, C. W. (2002). Dietary enrichment counteracts age-associated cognitive dysfunction in canines. Neurobiology of aging23(5), 737-745.
Milgram, N. W., Head, E., Zicker, S. C., Ikeda-Douglas, C. J., Murphey, H., Muggenburg, B., ... & Cotman, C. W. (2005). Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study. Neurobiology of aging26(1), 77-90.
Orlando, J. M. (2018). Behavioral nutraceuticals and diets. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice48(3), 473-495.
Pike, A. L., Horwitz, D. F., & Lobprise, H. (2015). An open-label prospective study of the use of l-theanine (Anxitane) in storm-sensitive client-owned dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior10(4), 324-331.
Sechi, S., Di Cerbo, A., Canello, S., Guidetti, G., Chiavolelli, F., Fiore, F., & Cocco, R. (2017). Effects in dogs with behavioural disorders of a commercial nutraceutical diet on stress and neuroendocrine parameters. The Veterinary Record180(1), 18.
Zicker, S. C., Jewell, D. E., Yamka, R. M., & Milgram, N. W. (2012). Evaluation of cognitive learning, memory, psychomotor, immunologic, and retinal functions in healthy puppies fed foods fortified with docosahexaenoic acid–rich fish oil from 8 to 52 weeks of age. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association241(5), 583-594.