Everybody has their bad days. Life can be stressful sometimes, and that’s true for our dogs too. And some dogs have it even harder, struggling with chronic anxiety or depression disorders.
Of course, most of us are aware that diet has a huge impact on our physical health. But as it turns out, there’s evidence that what happens in our dogs’ digestive tract can also significantly affect their emotions, increasing or decreasing their stress levels without the use of drugs.
The physiological root of our moods and emotions, and our dogs’, are our hormones. That happy feeling your dog experiences occurs when their brain responds to stimulus by releasing specific hormones like serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, while feelings of fear are caused by the release of cortisol and adrenaline.
In other words, emotion is at least in part a physical response, and that means it can be affected by diet just like any other biological function.
Let’s start with the stuff your dog may already be eating which could be contributing negatively to their mood.
There are a few common ingredients that many dog food manufacturers use to cheaply supplement the protein in their formulas to meet nutritional minimums, which researchers have linked to changes in mood: soy and corn. Soy contains high levels of plant estrogen, which interacts with and suppresses other hormones, while corn is much lower in in the particular amino acids your dog’s body needs to produce serotonin, triggering aggression, anxiety, and excitability in dogs.
There’s also quite a bit of evidence indicating that artificial additives like preservatives, colors, and flavors can negatively impact your dog’s mood, causing hyperactivity and aggression.
The good news is that just like these bad ingredients can make your dog more anxious, there are other foods that can improve your dog’s mood and behavior.
In fact, I’m willing to bet that you’re already familiar with one natural mood-altering compound that veterinarians often use to induce calmness through diet – tryptophan.
If you haven’t heard that name before, it’s the amino acid found in naturally high levels in turkey meat that makes people feel sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner. It has the same effect on dogs as it does on people, because once tryptophan reaches the brain, it’s converted into serotonin, one of the happy hormones that help us feel relaxed and safe, and serotonin is also one of the ingredients the body uses to make melatonin, the sleepy hormone.
That’s why many dog supplements intended to naturally induce calm rely on tryptophan as an active ingredient. Aside from turkey, other natural sources of tryptophan include tuna, eggs, and dairy products – stuff that’s good for most dogs and that they love to eat! So if you’d like to make sure your dog is relaxed during a stressful event, like a trip to the vet or visit from strangers, try feeding them some tryptophan-rich foods beforehand, and it may help reduce their anxiety.
There is also some evidence that certain B vitamins can improve mood and reduce anxiety, especially in combination with tryptophan.
Vitamins B-3 and B-6 are necessary for the conversion of other amino acids (like our old friend tryptophan) into serotonin, helping to regulate and support proper levels of this vital happy hormone.
Vitamin B-1 helps with the transmission of nervous system impulses – in humans, it has been found to improve concentration and decrease excitability, and anecdotally it appears to have the same effect on dogs.
Most B vitamins occur naturally in meat, and that’s where dogs in the wild get their B vitamin intake. However, most commercial dog foods contain far less meat than is present in a wild canine’s diet, supplementing the minimum protein levels required by regulations with vegetable and grain proteins that just aren’t as nutritious or digestible for dogs.
Plus, those foods go through intense cooking processes that destroy a lot of their natural nutrition. That’s why supplementing a dog’s diet with B vitamins can have significant positive impact on their mood.
More recently, scientists have also begun exploring significant links between mood and stress level, and the health of the gut biome, meaning the beneficial bacteria that live inside our dogs’ digestive system and help by breaking down nutrients and fighting off infection.
Considering that about 70% of your dog’s immune system function occurs in the gut, and the number of physical illnesses which manifest symptoms of depression or moodiness, it’s actually not all that surprising that gut health can affect mood!
In studies performed on mice, certain strains of probiotic had a direct effect on mood transmitters, and lower levels of those bacteria in the gut were correlated with higher levels of stress and anxiety. Two of those strains are lactobacillus acidophilus and bifodobacterium animalis, which are present in the Radiant Canine nutritional supplement which I helped to formulate.
And speaking of the immune system, vitamin C, an important component for immune health, can also help with feelings of doggy anxiety. Vitamin C’s main job is to act as an antioxidant, meaning it scrubs the blood of surplus oxygen that can cause cell damage, including the type of oxidative stress that contributes to neurological disorders that impact mood.
Dogs’ bodies produce a fair amount of vitamin C on their own, so a happy and healthy dog generally has enough in their diet, but stress and illness can deplete your dog’s natural store of vitamin C. Some dog-safe foods that naturally contain lots of vitamin C are berries, kelp, carrots, pineapple, and parsley.
Finally, some herbs such as valerian and chamomile are known to help dogs relax by bolstering the neurotransmitters that initiate sleep, inducing a mild natural sedative effect. These herbs have a similar effect on humans, and are often included in homeopathic sleep aids, so you may have experienced their benefits yourself!
Of course, it's important to understand that every dog's physiology is unique, and the calming effects of these different foods may have less impact on some dogs than others, so a little trial and error may be necessary to find the right calming solution for your dog. But I guarantee that the right diet can and will help your dog live their happiest and most stress-free life!
Wishing you and your dog the best of health,
Dr. Edward Tuk
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