You may wonder if diet can help your dog's anxiety or behavior problems. Just like with humans, anxiety is pervasive in our canine companions. In fact, up to 70% of dogs may have some kind of issue with nervousness. While factors like genetics, early experiences, lack of exercise, and stressful environments are all part of why our dogs may be anxious, diet can play a role.
When looking at anti-anxiety dog food or the best dog food for anxiety, it's essential to first understand the role of diet. So let's take a closer look at nutrition's role in keeping your dog calm and what supplements can help.
In the next part of this series, we will look at two dog foods made to help calm our dogs down and discuss whether they may really help our dogs.
What does the research say about food for a dog's anxiety?
The truth is that there isn't that much research on how diet and food may help with a dog's anxiety. Much of the advice passed around is anecdotal and doesn't have much evidence to back it up. Common remedies like pheromones have mixed results.
Although many pet parents and blogs swear by CBD or hemp oil, the fact is that there isn't much research that supports it for calming dogs down. At best, CBD oil seems to help dogs with pain from osteoarthritis.
Factors like a dog not getting enough exercise or being hyper-attached to their owners are two of dogs' biggest causes of anxiety. Negative life experiences and being in a stressful environment are two other primary causes. However, by far, the biggest factor behind a dog's anxiety is their genetics. In particular, dogs bred for looks rather than health and temperament often develop bloodlines prone to nervousness, aggression, or fear.
Nevertheless, some studies suggest a few supplements and dietary changes could help a dog with anxiety.
So can diet help with a dog's anxiety?
To some extent, diet and nutrition may help with a dog's anxiety or aggression. Diet and nutrition cannot stop anxious behavior on their own. But it does influence the chemicals in the canine brain that can either keep them stressed or help them relax. So it's important to use diet, supplements, and behavior modification to help your dog's anxiety.
As with humans, dogs release neurotransmitters and hormones that cause arousal, fear, or aggression. These can be stress-related such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. Or, it can also be neurotransmitters such as dopamine that are behind dogs with a strong "work drive ."Dopamine is the chemical that helps them focus and work for a reward.
Police, service dogs, and other working breeds rely on plenty of dopamine to get the job done. These dogs are so driven to work that they are notorious for being destructive when they don't have a job, and they can develop nervous or aggression issues.
Conversely, dogs have their "rest and digest" hormones and neurotransmitters. These feel-good chemicals like serotonin, endorphins, and GABA help a dog calm down and relax.
The key in the diet is to look at the amino acids that the dog uses to create GABA and serotonin vs. the amino acids that a dog uses to create dopamine and stress hormones. Gut Health is also essential for this, so be sure to see our article on keeping our dogs gastrointestinal tract healthy.
Tryptophan for keeping dogs calm
Tryptophan is a non-essential amino acid that appears in high amounts in foods like tuna and turkey. Dogs cannot synthesize it themselves and need to get it from their diet. The dog's stomach uses tryptophan to synthesize 90% of the serotonin in the intestine.
The microbiome in the gut also partially controls serotonin production. This means dogs with an unhealthy gut microbiome may have trouble creating enough serotonin to feel good and relaxed.
Interestingly, raw, meat-based diets and BARF diets may change the microbiome so that they stimulate the production of serotonin and GABA. In fact, BARF diets increase the amounts of GABA in a dog's system and its precursor, GHB. Both GABA and serotonin help reduce anxiety and aggression.
However, much more research is needed to confirm that a high tryptophan diet really does help dogs calm down. The biggest issue with getting tryptophan into the body is that it is difficult for the body to absorb enough of it and for it to cross the blood-brain barrier.
One of the problems with tryptophan is that it competes with other neutral amino acids, specifically tyrosine, valine, isoleucine, leucine, and phenylalanine. These amino acids often make it difficult for a dog to absorb tryptophan.
Can I feed foods high in tryptophan to help my dog's anxiety?
Plenty of wellness blogs suggest you feed your anxious dogs foods like turkey to help them calm down because turkey is very high in tryptophan. However, people often overlook the simple fact that it is also high in tyrosine and these other neutral amino acids.
Tyrosine is the amino acid precursor to dopamine and stress chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline. When a dog's body is given a choice over whether to absorb tryptophan or tyrosine, it picks the tyrosine.
This means that for tryptophan to work, it needs to be given as a supplement, and foods high in tryptophan are not likely to change your dog's anxiety on their own.
Even the enzyme the body uses to create serotonin with tryptophan has trouble binding. This means an anxious dog needs a lot more tryptophan in high doses to be effective. Luckily, vitamin B2 or riboflavin and other B vitamins specifically help with serotonin synthesis. So for tryptophan to take hold, ideally, a dog should also be ingesting a good amount of B vitamins and be given a very high dose of a quality tryptophan supplement.
Inflammation in the body can also be detrimental to a dog's mental health. Read this article to understand the basics of lowering chronic inflammation.
Omega Fatty Acids to Help a Dog's Anxiety
A deficiency of omega fatty acids can cause anxiety and behavior problems in dogs. This isn't that unlikely since omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids oxidize quickly. When commercial dog food stands too long on the shelf, they tend to go rancid and drop below the recommended levels.
Moreover, AAFCO has no guidelines for omega-3s, and many bad-quality foods are far too low in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Some dog foods rely on plant oils for omega-3s. ALA, or the omega-3 fatty acid found in plant oils such as flaxseed oil, is an excellent antioxidant for dogs and may help indirectly.
However, the omega-3s found in fish oil, specifically EPA and DHA, are the ones you really want for an anxious dog. They reduce inflammation and are vital for the brain to function properly. So it's a good idea to ensure your dog ingests fatty fish like salmon or fresh fish oil can help with a dog's anxiety.
But this brings us to protein and fish for anxious and aggressive dogs.
Can too much protein cause anxiety in dogs?
There is some confusion over whether proteins and carbohydrates may cause a dog to be more anxious or aggressive. Those who support raw diets tend to argue that high-protein raw feeding can cure behavior issues. On the other hand, we need to understand how tryptophan and carbohydrates work together to create serotonin.
A carbohydrate and tryptophan-rich increase in serotonin in humans and animals' brains. This is not directly because of the carbs, but because carbohydrates cause the body to release more insulin. In turn, insulin reduces the other amino acids in the blood that compete with tryptophan, so more tryptophan can be absorbed. This is why humans with depression or anxiety problems often crave sweet foods and carbs.
Does this mean anxious and aggressive dogs should eat a high-carbohydrate diet? No.
Studies show that dogs that are aggressive and eat a high-protein diet without extra tryptophan in the diet may become more aggressive. This makes sense since they will also get a lot more neutral amino acids in their diet and have less insulin in their system. But, a high-protein diet high in tryptophan can lower aggression.
What's more, fish hydrolysates made from common cod and mackerel also have an anti-anxiety effect on dogs. Fish protein can help dogs who are afraid of loud noises such as fireworks or thunderstorms.
So what's the takeaway? As in all things, balance is key. Dogs with behavior disorders do not need to be on low-protein diets. But it's a good idea to look at making fish proteins their primary staple protein, with plenty of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. A portion of healthy carbohydrates such as oats or rice can also help.
Other natural remedies for a dog's anxiety and aggression
Claire Hargrave, BSc, reports on a diet with nutraceuticals to calm dogs down. It included L. tryptophan and a number of herbal and plant extracts known for calming effects on other mammals. These included:
- Pomegranate extract
- Powder from common valerian root and rhizomes
- Rosemary extract
- Lime Extracts
L-theanine is an active compound from green tea leaves, and it appears to lower the heart rate in humans during chronic anxiety. Along with these supplements, the diet was high in omega-3s and 6s and came with rice and hydrolyzed fish protein. Blood samples of dogs on this diet showed more endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. It also reduced the levels of noradrenaline and cortisol.
Medium chain triglyceride diets for a dog's anxiety.
We already discussed the potential health benefits of MCT oil for dogs in this article. However, one interesting study on dogs with epilepsy shows that a diet high in MCT oil also reduced hyperactivity and fear of strangers. This suggests that MCT oil may also be a good supplement for dogs with anxiety.
MCT oil can help other nutrients pass the blood-brain barrier, so is it possible that MCT oil can somehow help serotonin too?
Alpha-casozepine (Zylkene) for dog's anxiety
A final nutraceutical that shows some anti-anxiety effects for dogs is taken from casein powder. An active peptide called alpha-casozepine (Zylkene) seems to have valium-like effects on dogs and cats.
All current studies point to tryptophan being the key to helping a dog's anxiety and aggression. However, this does not mean that foods high in tryptophan, like turkey, will be effective. The way this amino acid is absorbed is complicated, so it is better given as a supplement with the carbohydrate portion of your dog's food.
Dogs with fear-related behavior problems can also benefit from more fish in their diet, as well as omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Other helpful supplements could be MCT oil, L-theanine, and some herbal extracts from rosemary and valerian. In the next part of this article, we will look at two commercial dog foods to decide whether they are a good option for anxious dogs.