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Behaviour Problems in Dogs

Abnormal behaviour has frequently been linked to food sensitivity

Behaviour problems and diet

Written by John Burns Veterinary Surgeon BVMS MRCVS


When I first developed my food, my attention was focused on how physical health was influenced by nutrition. However, many dog owners also noticed improvements in the behaviour and mental condition of their pets. Hyperactive dogs became calm, timid dogs became more confident, and unruly dogs were suddenly easier to control and train. These changes were unexpected but they should not be surprising. The very basis of a holistic, natural approach is that body and mind are one, and have an effect on each other. (See my Veterinary Guide to Natural Health Care, A Holistic Lifestyle p. 29)

I recommend foods based on complex carbohydrates, usually from wholegrains such as brown rice, oats and maize, but also potato and buckwheat – the traditional foods of humans (and therefore domesticated dogs) for many centuries. (Despite its name, buckwheat is not related to wheat and, in fact, is not a grain at all.  It has been a staple, traditional food of humans in many parts of the world).

Complex carbohydrates are absorbed slower than simple, refined sugars. Foods that are low in fat and protein and free from simple sugars and chemical additives such as colourings are also beneficial. It should also be hypoallergenic meaning that they are less likely to cause food allergy or intolerance reactions. These nutritional characteristics promote stable mental and physical health, which are essential when dealing with undesirable behaviour.


Dietary causes of mental health/behaviour problems are:

  • poor quality food
  • overfeeding (excess energy intake)
  • chemicals in the diet
  • excess fat/protein

See below for more detail.

Intestinal function and the brain

As a student of Acupuncture and Macrobiotics, I learned that Traditional Oriental Medicine draws a strong affinity between the function of the large intestine and the brain.  Good mental health depends on a healthy digestive system.  To modern ears this may sound preposterous but in recent times, science is catching up with this possibility.  Recent research points to the gut microbiome (the billions of micro-organisms in the gut) as an important factor in mental health in humans.  This reinforces the idea that diet can be an important factor in mental health and behaviour in the dog too.


Behaviour problems can be the result of:


– toxic overload

– food intolerance

– excess energy intake


Behaviour and toxic overload

Production of waste is a normal part of the metabolic process but when this is excessive, these wastes accumulate and cause cell damage which releases free radicals.  This will interfere with normal physical and mental health. The brain with its high blood supply will be particularly susceptible to toxic overload, especially from free radicals. There are several potential causes of this excess waste production/toxic overload:


– unsuitable food e.g. inappropriate ingredients and chemical additives

– overfeeding, even of good quality food

– adverse food reaction (see above)

– infection or inflammation (free radicals)


You can read more about how toxins damage health in my Veterinary Guide to Natural Healthcare (pp. 4- 6 of Development of Disease)


Behaviour and food allergy/intolerance

Abnormal behaviour has frequently been linked to adverse reaction to food (food sensitivity), so a hypoallergenic diet may be helpful.  Hypoallergenic (less likely to cause adverse reaction) should have a limited number of ingredients with only one animal protein source and only one or two carbohydrate sources.  You can read more about food allergy/intolerance in my Veterinary Guide to Natural Healthcare (pp.9 -10).


“The very basis of a holistic, natural approach is that body and mind are one, and have an effect on each other.”


Overfeeding and behaviour

There is a great deal of anecdotal evidence that excessive energy intake causes hyperactivity and excessive vocalisation (barking). Foods high in fat and protein mean higher energy intake. Fat and protein also produce more toxic waste products in the system than carbohydrate.

See Daily Feeding Amounts


Behaviour and additives

There are many studies linking hyperactive and aggressive behaviour in children to chemical additives such as colourings and sugar. Common sense tells us that these should be avoided in dogs too.


Environmental and social issues

Early socialisation is vital in avoiding mental and behavioural problems. Where possible a new pet puppy should come from a home environment where socialisation begins at birth, not when the puppy arrives when several weeks old.


Unfamiliar sounds or objects may cause behavioural issues. Early exposure to a variety of different sounds, sights and smells can help minimise reactive behaviour. Positive reinforcement when they have new experiences will help to make these exposures less frightening in the future.


Boredom can also insight behavioural problems such as destructive behaviour so it is worth evaluation their exercise routine in case a small adjustment may be beneficial and feeding toys and puzzles. Offer an additional form of mental exercise.


Genetics/Health Issues – identify with the help of a professional if needed.


Behavioural issues may be related to conditions such as arthritis, various diseases and age-related issues such as loss of vision. Genetics may play a role as, if dogs that have a poor temperament are bred then this may put an additional factor playing a part in your dog’s behaviour.


Don’t forget pets can be irritable and aggressive if they are in chronic pain. This may be especially true for older dogs.


If this is happening with your dog, we recommend a checkup with your own vet to rule out any other conditions.

Speak to a Pet Nutritionist

Get in touch with the Burns Health and Nutrition Team for individually tailored advice on the right food type and amounts for your dog. At Burns we work to address pet health conditions brought about by unhealthy lifestyle and especially diet. Drawing on the link between health and nutrition, we developed dry pet food that offers the same benefits for your favourite furry friend as simple homecooked food.

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