How diet can cause stress in dogs

Unfortunately, dogs can’t talk about their problems so they often express stress in different forms, including:

  • Aggression over food, treats or toys
  • Digging and escaping to seek out food
  • Tucking into garbage
  • Chewing on household objects
  • Devouring their meal and then vomiting it up
  • Coprophagia (eating feces)

If your dog is showing some of these signs, they might not be getting enough high-quality nutrients to satisfy them. Some dogs for example can’t digest high levels of incomplete proteins and in turn don’t intake the necessary amino acids.

On the other hand, dogs who are eating too many simple carbohydrates or sugars can become unfocused, agitated and difficult to train.

Here is a good article by Dogs Naturally Magazine about your dog’s diet and his behavior—and why your dog may not be getting what he needs—even if you are feeding a high-quality dry kibble.

How To Improve Your Dog’s Behavior With Diet

By Julia Langlands ACFBA Last Updated: March 28, 2022

Raw meat and bones offer more than physical health and longevity for your dog. They offer amazing mental health and behavioral benefits too! The answer lies in the gut, your dog’s most underrated organ.

Your Dog’s Gut Influences His Mood

The gut contains many beneficial bacteria and chemicals that are essential for

  • Self-control
  • Energy
  • Mood
  • Happiness
  • Motivation
  • Contentment
  • Trainability

Knowing that gut influences mood brings diet into the spotlight when it comes to behavior. That’s why this fabulous organ is known as the second brain.

The phrase, “You are what you eat,” has never been more relevant to dogs than it is right now. The rise of commercial processed kibble has brought with it a surge of behavior problems. Your dog’s food dramatically influences mood, feelings and actions – behavior itself!

The Cycle Of Feelings And Behavior

Behavior is a result of both internal and external factors, working together in harmony. Hormones and neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that have many jobs inside your dog’s body. One of these jobs is creating feelings.

Feelings result in mood, and mood results in behavior, which feeds back information based on outcome and creates more chemical messengers. These chemicals create feelings and moods, which feed further information to the brain. That causes further chemical release, which creates feelings, mood, and behavior—you get the idea.

Physical behaviors and emotions are part of a cycle that drives each other. They’re inextricably linked. This process is known as biofeedback. It’s a natural way of creating balance, regulating stress and excitement. It allows your dog to respond appropriately to threats, promoting behavior that offers a reward—Internally or externally.

When you’re working on your dog’s behavior, focusing on the result is just one small way of changing behavior patterns. But focusing on the physical action doesn’t directly address the emotion beneath.

The Chemicals That Influence Your Dog’s Mood

Let’s examine the gut and what occurs beneath the fur – beyond the visible signs of aggression, restlessness, fear, or phobia. Diet plays a huge part here, and raw feeding is the gold standard. This natural diet promotes gut health and offers plenty of storage space for the following chemicals, each with its own associated benefits:

  • Opiates – responsible for happiness
  • Dopamine – motivates
  • Acetyl chloride – for memory and concentration
  • Endogenous benzodiazepines – tranquilizing
  • GABA – counters activity and relaxes

One superstar opiate-like substance is serotonin. Around 90 percent of your dog’s serotonin is in the gut’s protective lining known as the epithelium. Among other things, serotonin is responsible for the balance of mood.

A Healthy Brain Starts In The Gut

Looking at this list of attributes, it’s clear why a dog lacking these chemicals struggles with the balance of mood, excitability, inability to settle, stress, depression, memory problems, and focus. These chemicals and others work together to create an adaptable, trainable, calm, focused, happy, relaxed, and eager-to-please dog at his best.

But these important chemicals can only work efficiently if the epithelium is healthy. Epithelial health relies on beneficial bacteria and some cool little finger-like projections called villi.

The secret to supporting these friendly bacteria and villi is acidic conditions in your dog’s digestive system. Low digestive pH (meaning acidic) is the best way to wipe out harmful bacteria and set the friendly bacteria up for success. If the pH of the gut is at the optimum low level, then healthy bacteria can flourish while villi regenerate and thrive.

This is bad news for damaging bacteria because their optimal pH is much higher. Bad bacteria don’t like acidic conditions, so your dog’s extensive colony of super-hero bacteria can crowd them out.

Meat and bone in their natural state promote these optimal conditions.

Your Dog Needs Meat

The domestic dog is of the order Carnivora, and your dog’s dentition, jaws and musculature are designed to tear, crunch, and swallow. The gut is short and perfectly geared towards digesting meat at a low pH. The saliva in the mouth contains no amylase, which is essential for breaking down carbohydrates.

Your dog’s body is perfectly geared towards tearing off huge pieces of meat and swallowing them whole, without much mechanical action or breaking down of the food via enzymes in the mouth. This then leaves his stomach and gut to do most of the hard work in the digestive process.

This is a great design of nature. The action of digesting appropriate food has all sorts of benefits beyond getting nutrients.

The stomach stretches with large quantities of high moisture meat and bone. It’s forced to work hard to break down the food by grinding it up, releasing acid as needed. This acid release happens thanks to the wrinkly gastric folds that line the stomach. These folds are known as rugae and allow the stomach to expand, grind, produce acid and digest raw foods. This is how the magic happens!

How Kibble Affects Your Dog’s Behavior

Kibble includes large amounts of carbohydrates. It’s processed at high temperatures and comes in the form of cooked, dry, compact pieces – the exact opposite of what your dog is designed to digest.

Although adaptation towards scavenging has allowed dogs to tolerate carbohydrates in times of deficit (think starvation and digging for roots), it isn’t a great way to nourish the body. It’s a short-term emergency survival strategy at best! The biggest problems this food replacement poses are to the digestive system–and the second brain your dog relies on so heavily.

When you feed kibble, the gut becomes flaccid, lazy, and sensitive. Not only is kibble already cooked and simple to process, it’s also smaller in volume due to a lack of moisture. So, the stomach doesn’t fill and stretch as it’s designed to do, and the rugae don’t get a chance to do their thing!

Because kibble is pre-processed, your dog doesn’t have enough stomach acid. So, the pH of the body rises and the gut becomes weak; the epithelium is damaged, may become leaky, and harmful bacteria runs amok.

You might say, “But I feed a super-expensive high protein kibble. That’s OK, right?” Nope! Certainly not from a behavior perspective (or from an overall health perspective either – but that’s a separate topic).

High Protein Kibble Isn’t Better

High protein processed diets can often worsen nervousness, fear, aggression, and hyperactivity. This may be partly due to the mechanism of the essential amino acid tryptophan.

Forget gut serotonin for a minute and let’s look to brain serotonin. You know the best place to promote serotonin is in the gut, right? But if the gut is unhealthy due to processed foods, what then?

Tryptophan is essential for making brain serotonin, so in times of deficit, when a dog is forced to scavenge lower protein foods, the brain steps up. But if you offer high protein dry foods, tryptophan has to compete for access to the brain, as other large amino acids shove it aside to gain priority access. In a high protein diet, tryptophan is crowded out in the struggle for entry. This makes brain serotonin scarce.

You now have a dog with a confused digestive system. His body doesn’t know if he’s digging for roots or finding plentiful prey. The high protein composition of kibble is that of an animal, but the mechanism to break it down is akin to emergency scavenging rations. So, this explains why high protein processed diets can aggravate your dog’s behavior problems. 

Why Nighttime Behavior May Be Worse

Dogs with poor serotonin availability tend to be more of a challenge during nighttime hours. The body just can’t cope when its tiny reserve of serotonin is sacrificed to make melatonin. Melatonin is produced from serotonin to promote sleep when the sun goes down. So, if your dog’s mood is unbalanced, the promotion of natural serotonin should be a major player in any program to improve your dog’s behavior.

It’s not surprising that dominance aggression and idiopathic (from unknown causes) aggression are often more problematic at night.

How Your Dog’s Body And Mind Work Together

There’s no question that the body and mind are a double act, and the star of the show is your dog’s amazing gut. It’s easy to focus on visible behaviors and forget to address the emotional precursors that guide them. When you do that, you’re missing the larger picture.

In focusing only on the symptom, you can inadvertently work against your goals. For example, you might do this by discouraging behaviors your dog has little control over, stamping out the coping strategies that balance mood. Or you might be rewarding a preferred physical behavior, while unwittingly generalizing and encouraging the feelings that drive the unwanted actions.

The solution to behavior problems begins with raw nutrition.

A Natural Diet Improves Dog Behavior

Feeding a natural diet ensures that your dog’s gut is actively involved, and that his body is healthy. You can achieve amazing success by incorporating raw feeding into a behavior modification program.

If the body is healthy, nourished properly and free of pain and disease, then you can reassure yourself that your dog has no pain, discomfort, or inflammation that can affect mood and hamper training.

Frustration and stress can’t develop as readily. You can be certain that the chemicals your dog needs for positive change are present and ready for action. 

Your dog not only needs to understand what you want, but he needs to be capable of doing it! Raw feeding targets the root cause rather than the standalone symptoms. It offers more than the sum of its parts.

How A Raw Diet Helps Your Dog’s Mood

Reduced inflammation lessens pain. Pain and discomfort cause production of stress hormones that make a dog ready for conflict, which can factor into aggression problems. Other dogs can also pick this up, and your dog’s relationships suffer as a result. Increased energy is balanced by better focus, concentration, memory and self-control, leading to better trainability.

The mechanical action of chewing bones boosts endorphins (stress and fear-relieving chemicals). Bones also contain the minerals to support a stressed dog, including bioavailable magnesium.

Higher muscle mass increases confidence hormones, often vital to stabilize mood for neutered dogs.

Improved immune function, with no atopy, stress or illness, means a happy relaxed dog.

Healthier scent glands, essential for social communication.

Julia Langlands ACFBA is a Holistic Canine Behavior Consultant. She’s been working with dogs for over 20 years and teaching for many of them. She is an associate of the Canine & Feline Behavior Association, a raw food advisor, animal welfare consultant and working behaviorist. Julia is passionate about the impact of diet on hormones, mood, health and behavior, and she shares her work and her home with many canine assistants. 


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