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by Dr. Karyn Kanowski
Antisocial behavior, aggression, or untrainability are among the common reasons that dogs and cats are surrendered to animal shelters every day. In many of those cases, better preparation, education, and dedication by owners may have prevented those pets from being abandoned, but could a change in diet have made a difference? In this article, we will explore the influence that different ingredients and nutrients can have on behavior, look at the new directions this research is heading, and how nutrition can affect the training of dogs and cats.
Nutrition and Survival
As evolution shows, the fittest individuals are the ones that survive and breed, so eating the right things has been an important strategy for survival and success. Animals in the wild will select foods that meet their nutritional needs and will even search for specific items to address or prevent deficiencies. How they are able to identify what they are lacking and how to correct it is still a mystery, but when provided with a wide selection of foods, they will generally consume the right balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
The problem domestic pets can face is when the food provided is not properly balanced and there are no alternatives for them to correct that problem. For instance, a dog fed a diet that is too high in carbohydrates will need to consume more of that food to also meet its protein needs and the excess is then stored as lipids, which can have an influence on health behavior.
It is well established that diet quality and nutrient balance have a significant impact on health and wellbeing, does this affect training? To answer that question, let’s start with some human examples.
There have been several experimental trials undertaken at prisons and detention centers on how behavior is affected by the use of vitamin and mineral supplements. The results have shown a convincing reduction in violence and antisocial behavior amongst inmates receiving supplements when compared with those eating a less balanced diet.
Similar studies have been conducted amongst juveniles with a high incidence of delinquency, yielding similar results. The conclusions being drawn are that consuming the appropriate balance of vitamins and minerals improves brain function and cognition, reducing antisocial behavior and violence.
The role of nutrition in canine behavior is a field that is growing in popularity and interest, but there is currently limited scientific evidence to draw definitive conclusions, even less so for cats. Recently, the effects of protein content on behavior have come under the microscope, but focusing on this alone may lead to further problems.
Proteins, Tryptophan and Behavior…Oh My!
Most canine nutritionists agree that protein levels in dog food have an effect on behavior, but there is a lack of consensus over the nature of that effect. The trouble with focusing on a single nutritional item is that it can lead to imbalances elsewhere, so is there a way to optimize the levels of one nutrient without negative impacts?
The answer may be in reducing overall protein content, and at the same time, adding specific amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) that have been proven to positively impact behavior and well-being. Encouraging results have shown that a diet of low to moderate protein combined with the addition of the amino acid Tryptophan can have a beneficial impact on dog behavior, reducing aggression and anxiety and improving attention span and trainability.
Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that improves mood and cognitive function, so reducing levels of non-essential proteins and adding beneficial amino acids may strike the right balance.
What About Cats?
The jury is out on whether we train cats or they train us, but being obligate carnivores makes their dietary requirements more straightforward. Cats need higher protein and fat levels than dogs, and when fed a high-quality diet, require only a few additional nutrients to meet their metabolic needs.
Much of the research into feeding and behavior in cats tends to be focused on how they are fed, rather than what. Being a species with a significant prey drive, having food placed in a bowl twice a day will likely lead to frustration, depression, or acting out.
Hiding food in different locations or using food-dispensing toys can help your cat feel challenged and stimulated, and similar approaches can also help occupy your destructive dogs. A cat that feels stimulated and alert is far more likely to be interested in its surroundings and more responsive to training.
There is anecdotal consensus that nutrition plays an important role in dog and cat behavior and therefore, training. However, this area needs more research before snap decisions and assumptions can be made about what foods are “good or bad”.
Research supports the idea that feeding a high-quality diet that meets nutritional needs has a positive impact on behavior and cognition in humans, as well as a reduction in violence and aggression. It would be reasonable to believe this will apply to dogs and cats as well.
There have been encouraging results with the manipulation of proteins (rather than a simple reduction) on canine behavior which may prove invaluable in improving not only their health and wellbeing but our relationship with them too.
Pets that are alert, healthy, and mentally stimulated will invariably be more responsive to training and positive reinforcement than those whose nutritional needs are not being met, so before deciding that a pet “cannot be trained”, take a look at what they are being fed.