Did you know your dog’s diet and nutrition may play a critical role in brain function and behavior?
If you’ve ever felt lazy after eating a big meal, or hyperactive following a sugary treat, then you have an idea of how what we eat can affect our behavior. The same applies to dogs. In fact, scientists now believe it’s possible to change the neurological and physical aspects of a dog’s brain, thus directly affecting his behavior and intelligence, through nutrition.
Good nutrition vital to puppies
The best evidence that nutrition may play a critical role in brain function and behavior comes from studies conducted at the University of Toronto by a team of researchers and behavioral neurologist, Norton Milgram. These studies showed that gross development of the canine brain is extremely rapid during the first four weeks after birth, then slows considerably until the pup reaches adulthood. “Inclusion of fish oil rich in Omega 3 fatty acids in maternal foods has been shown to increase learning ability and ERG-assessed retinal function in growing puppies,” says Dr. Milgram. Feeding fish oil rich in DHA improves how quickly a puppy responds to training, and also enhances his cognitive development.
Linolenic (Omega 3) and linoleic (Omega 6) fatty acids play an important part in a dog’s diet. Dogs require both, but fat sources differ greatly in their concentrated amounts of Omegas 3 and 6. Both continue to be a major focus of study when it comes to behavior and nutrition. Omega 3 is found in high levels in fish oils. It is also found in flaxseed, wheat germ, canola and soybean oils.
These studies are part of a growing consensus among researchers that nutrition plays an important role in brain health. “For the first year of a dog’s life, balanced nutrition is vital,” says Dr. Stanley Coren, Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. “Without balanced nutrition the nerve cells of a dog’s brain will not mature properly; and the brain will be smaller in volume and weight and not function as well. Poorly nourished dogs act less intelligently throughout the rest of their lives. A dog’s brain and behavior is shaped to some degree by events in the womb. When the puppy is ten days of age, we can easily count the number of neural connections (synapses) that a single cell in the cortex has with other cells in the brain since there will only be a few hundred. By the time the puppy reaches 35 days of age, the number of connections for each neuron in the brain will have multiplied to around 12,000.”
Although most dog lovers have no control over the nutrition of their dogs’ parents, the diet during the fi rst year of a puppy’s life is most important.
Negative effects of poor quality diets
“Commercial pet foods don’t contain some things we wish they did: adequate quantities and qualities of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, as well as the more intangible qualities unique to live, fresh foods,” says veterinarian Dr. Richard Pitcairn. “Secondly, they contain other things we wish they didn’t: slaughterhouse wastes, toxic products from spoiled foodstuffs, non-nutritive fillers, heavy metal contaminants, sugar, pesticides and herbicides, drug residues, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives and bacteria and fungi contaminants. All processed pet foods…are missing something that seems to me to be the most important ‘nutrient’ of all. This key ingredient is practically ignored by nutritional scientists, but we can sense when it’s there. It is a quality found only in freshly grown, uncooked whole foods: life energy!”
“Artificial ingredients are often highly antagonistic and can actually contribute to an animal’s mental and emotional imbalance,” adds Andi Brown, director of Halo and author of The Whole Pet Diet. “Some additives can be so detrimental that they can actually have the same effect on an animal as hallucinogenic drugs have on people. According to Best Friends Animal Society, the most common reason animals are put down by vets or turned into shelters is because of unruly behavior.” Andi recommends adding minerals and vitamins, especially the full complex of B vitamins, to a dog’s food to help with behavior problems.
A head for health
Major nutrients in a healthy, balanced diet for dogs include protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins and minerals and water. A well fed dog needs to eat a variety of foods to get a good range and balance of vitamins and minerals.
• Choosing premium brands of dog food made with high quality, easily digestible ingredients is an excellent starting point for ensuring your dog is getting adequate nourishment for his brain as well as his body.
• It’s also a good idea to switch to healthier treats and supplement foods with cooked sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots and green beans. All these provide your dog with extra nutrients.
• Other human foods that can be shared safely with your dog are lean meats, cooked vegetables and fresh fruits (with the exception of grapes). As long as they do not make up the bulk of your dog’s diet, and you’re not feeding table scraps that contain too much fat, these are nutritious additions and add variety to the diet.
• Holistic health practitioners firmly believe root vegetables provide important healing properties. They also maintain these vegetables provide stabilizing energy that focuses the brain and strengthens the will.
• “Seafood is loaded with protein, minerals, and enzymes when fresh and also has lots of collagen,” says Andi. “Spirulina and chlorella are a more concentrated source of chlorophylls than any other food. Both of these algae help reduce inflammation and are also rich in essential fatty acids.”
“Whether your dog is young or old, adequate nutrition and mental stimulation will keep his brain functioning at its peak, and allow him to develop and keep a high level of fluid intelligence,” says Dr. Coren.
Cognitive function in older dogs
Together with Dr. Carl Cotman, a neurochemist at the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California at Irvine, Dr. Milgram and his team studied old dogs as models of human aging. Both agreed that “oxidative damage is a key feature in the aged brains of animals and people, and that the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease show greater damage.” Dr. Cotman suggests that the use of antioxidant supplements like vitamins E and C might “improve cognitive decline” in people as well as animals, since older dogs develop the same pathological changes in their brains as older people.
Carotenoids such as beta carotene, combined with certain minerals such as selenium, fatty acids DHA and EPA, carnitine and alpha lipoic acid were found to prevent formations of amyloids in older dogs. Dr. Milgram’s research team combined a diet rich in these nutrients with “cognitive enrichment”, and concluded that it slowed down or partially “reversed” brain decline in dogs.