What Is The Connection Between A Dog‘s Diet and Behaviour? · The Wildest

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Could Your Dog’s Diet Be Changing Their Behaviour?

It turns out the saying ‘you are what you eat’ isn’t just for humans

by Orla Pentelow
14 March 2024
black and white Corgi puppy eating out of a yellow dog bowl

As dog parents, we’re constantly striving to ensure the health and happiness of our furry companions. From regular vet check-ups to daily walks, we do our best to provide a fulfilling life for our pets. But could something as seemingly mundane as their diet be influencing their behaviour?

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in understanding the intricate relationship between a dog’s diet and their behaviour. To find out more about this topic, we’ve consulted with experts in veterinary neurology, animal behaviour and nutrition to unravel the mysteries behind how diet and nutrition impact our canine friends and what they get up to.

Key components of a dog’s diet

Protein, lipids, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals form the foundation of a balanced diet for dogs. “In a balanced diet, dogs should have all the essential amino acids that their body can’t make itself,” says Dr Wanda McCormick, head of animal and agriculture at Hartpury University. “Any diet with a deficiency could influence hormone and neurotransmitter production, potentially affecting behaviour.”

To understand how diet affects behaviour, it’s essential to examine the key nutrients in a dog’s diet, and how they contribute to your pup’s overall well-being. A complete diet for dogs should be made up of:

The connection between diet and behaviour

According to Dr McCormick, the key components of a dog’s diet play a crucial role in behaviour regulation. “How an animal behaves is influenced by their endocrine (hormone) system and their nervous system, so everything that affects physiology can affect behaviour,” says Dr McCormick. 

“Whether it is hormones or neurotransmitters, they are all forms of chemical messages that are made by the body using the chemical building blocks derived from food so low levels of certain nutrients, for example, could lead to low levels of these signals and influence how an animal responds,” she says. 

Georgina Harris, European specialist in veterinary neurology and neurosurgery at the University of Cambridge, agrees, shedding light on the link between diet and behaviour in dogs. “Some diets can agree or disagree with a dog just like in humans,” she explains. “A dog that is having a diet that causes stomach issues may behave differently and appear painful, withdrawn or lethargic.”

For instance, low levels of certain nutrients such as tryptophan can affect neurotransmitters, potentially leading to increased aggression or anxiety in dogs. “Often called the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter for the way it can influence ‘mood’ and therefore behaviour, low levels of tryptophan is linked to increased aggression, self-mutilation and anxiety in dogs,” says Dr McCormick. 

“Even more obviously, things like sugar levels can affect activity levels and also influence the way an animal behaves,” she says. “There is a lot of interest now in the ‘gut-brain axis’ – the connection between what is going on in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and how it affects behaviour – and even the ‘microbiota-gut-brain axis’ which also includes the interactions of the bacteria that live within an animal’s GI tract.”

Further influences on behaviour 

Dietary considerations can extend beyond mere nutritional intake. There are a number of external factors surrounding mealtimes that influence behaviour, emphasising the broader impact of diet on a dog’s overall well-being.

Method of delivery

Beyond direct links between food and behaviour, Dr McCormick notes the importance of considering the presentation of food to enhance a dog’s mental stimulation and well-being. “For many dogs, mealtime becomes a highlight,” she says. “The way food is presented can influence their overall well-being, with feeding enrichment devices such as food mats spreading out interest and improving their overall mood.”

Additionally, hand feeding your pup can be a fantastic tool for harnessing trust and adapting some less-than-desirable behaviours. For nervous or anxious dogs, it can build your relationship, provide socialisation and help boost their confidence. It can increase motivation for training, and improve impulse control. For pups prone to resource guarding it can improve their relationship with food (and you) with some additional training.

Allergies and sensitivities

Beyond specific nutrients, dietary factors such as food sensitivities or allergies can significantly impact behaviour. “Some dogs will have diet-responsive diseases such as allergic dermatitis, leading to itchiness and affecting their behaviour,” says Dr Harris.

Dr Harris advises always speaking to a vet first before trying a new diet and introducing it slowly. “Some diets will also cause dietary upset such as vomiting or diarrhoea if a dog isn’t used to it or, in more severe cases, they may have a food allergy that can make them feel tired and unwell (as well as giving them vomiting or diarrhoea),” she says.

Dogs may exhibit restlessness or irritability due to GI discomfort caused by sensitivities, so identifying and addressing these issues through dietary adjustments, such as hypoallergenic diets, could also improve overall well-being. 


Dr Harris emphasises the importance of gradual dietary changes and how a lack of certain nutrients can affect behaviour. “Deficiencies in certain B vitamins can cause various manifestations of neurological disease in dogs, particularly thiamine and cobalamin,” she says. “Most commercial dog foods will have sufficient levels of these, but dogs on a home-cooked diet may be at risk if not done very carefully.”


Whilst further scientific research is needed to confirm the efficacy of certain supplements on a dog’s behaviour, research from PhD students studying under Dr McCormick have so far seen successful results so far in study on a calming herbal supplement for dogs, too. “We found a reduction in agonistic (fighting) behaviours and increased approaches to strangers in kennelled hounds who had been fed the herbal blend (chamomile, lemon balm, vervain and skullcap),” she says, highlighting the potential of dietary interventions in shaping behaviour.

Elsewhere, levels of fatty acids may be particularly important during brain development, and omega-3 and omega-6 “could also affect the serotonin and dopamine systems and therefore behaviour”, says Dr McCormick.

Tailored diets

Regarding specific diet-related strategies for anxiety or compulsive behaviours, both experts agree on the potential benefits of tailored diets. “There are specific diets to help seizures in dogs with idiopathic epilepsy and to help dogs with dementia, for example,” says Dr Harris. “Animals with seizures and dementia will often have anxiety and compulsion symptoms as part of their disease process, so it’s possible diet could help this, too; in particular, a diet high in medium chain triglycerides that have been shown to be neuroprotective in the brain.”

As pet parents, it’s essential to prioritise a balanced and nutritious diet for our furry friends, whilst consulting with veterinarians and nutrition experts to address any dietary concerns. By understanding the intricate connections between nutrition and behaviour, we can make informed choices to support their overall well-being. So, the next time you fill your dog’s bowl, remember: you’re not just feeding their body but nourishing their mind too.


Orla Pentelow

Orla Pentelow is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in London. When not at her desk she’s out and about with her rescue dog, Luna, who works primarily as chief distractor.

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