unwanted behaviors

Find out how certain dietary nutrients and calming supplements may curb aggression, anxiety and other unwanted behaviors in dogs.

Did you know that nutrition plays a role in canine behavior? Aggression, anxiety, begging, destructiveness, excessive barking and house soiling are just a few of the unwanted behaviors dog parents sometimes contend with. Socialization and training are definitely a big part of helping these dogs, but alterations to the diet and the addition of calming supplements can also be beneficial.

CERTAIN NUTRIENTS MAY IMPROVE PROBLEM BEHAVIORS

Behavior is regulated in part by neurotransmitters and hormones; these have precursors, chemical compounds that precede them in metabolic pathways. Making these precursors more or less available may make a difference in a dog’s behavior.

Tryptophan

Tryptophan is the precursor of serotonin (a neurotransmitter). The presence or absence of tryptophan is thought to affect aggression and stress resistance in dogs. Tryptophan is a large neutral amino acid (LNAA) that can cross the blood-brain barrier, depending on how much free tryptophan and other LNAAs are available in the body.

Increasing dietary tryptophan through supplementation can increase serotonin in the brain, which has been shown to reduce aggression and improve recovery from stress in some animals. Even though tryptophan is found in protein-containing foods, it is in relatively small supply compared to other LNAAs. In fact, a high fat and protein diet actually decreases the ratio of tryptophan to other LNAAs. This is why dietary supplementation of tryptophan is recommended.

Tyrosine

Tyrosine is a precursor of catecholamines (hormones produced by the adrenal gland) and may also affect aggression and stress resistance. Another amino acid, tryosine has been shown to have a beneficial effect on stress in humans and other animals. Along with iodine, it is also needed for adequate thyroid hormone production. Reduced amounts of tryosine can have a negative impact on thyroid hormone production, influencing metabolism, immune health and behavior, contributing to depression and aggression.

Unlike tryptophan, tyrosine is usually found in high concentrations in high-protein meals.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

DHA is a polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) with a beneficial effect on inflammation and cognition in humans and animals. Increased PUFA into the cellular membranes of the brain supports an improved flow of neurotransmitters between cells.

Studies indicate that DHA-rich diets improve learning ability while diets deficient in DHA have the opposite effect. In a large-scale study of puppies fed an enhanced-DHA diet, the pups made fewer errors during training and had a higher training performance index than puppies fed a diet containing normal quantities of DHA.

Since a diet rich in Omega-3 essential fatty acids, including DHA, has so many other health benefits for animals, any positive impact they may have on a dog’s behavior is an added bonus.

If your dog is displaying behavioral issues, positive obedience training and behavior modification, along with a good exercise program, may all be in order. In addition (with the help of an integrative or holistic vet who can tailor a protocol specific to your dog and his needs), consider making some changes to his diet or introducing some supplements to help calm and balance him.


Calming supplements

In some instances, despite a balanced, nutrient-dense diet and rigorous exercise, some dogs may still exhibit occasional signs of anxiety or restlessness. In these instances, I have found the following natural supplements to be beneficial.

• Organic holy basil (Tulsi) is an adaptogenic herb that enhances the body’s natural response to physical and emotional stress.

• L-theanine stimulates alpha brain waves that help with mental alertness, yet is simultaneously calming.

• Organic rhodiola rosea is another adaptogen that acts in non-specific ways to increase resistance to stress without disturbing normal biological functions.

• Ashwagandha (Indian ginseng) is also an adaptogen — it can help your dog’s body better manage physical, chemical and environmental stressors.

• Chamomile is a well-recognized herb with calming qualities.

• 5-Hydroxytryptohan (5-HTP) is created when tryptophan converts into serotonin, and promotes concentration and feelings of well-being. When levels of serotonin are too low, fear, aggression and anxiety can emerge.

• GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid) is an important central nervous system neurotransmitter. Studies show that too little GABA can
contribute to feelings of panic and anxiety.

• Vitamin B6 supports a healthy nervous system and mood, and helps with serotonin production.

AUTHOR PROFILE

Veterinarian Dr. Karen Shaw Becker received her degree from the Iowa State College of Veterinary Medicine. She owns/operates Natural Pet Animal Hospital, Feathers Bird Clinic, TheraPaw Rehabilitation and Pain Management Clinic and Covenant Wildlife Rehabilitation in Illinois. She co-authored Real Food for Healthy Pets and hosts a holistic animal wellness website (mercolahealthypets.com).