Diet Related Behavioural Issues in Pets
Updated: Mar 19
Is your pet displaying strange or unusual behaviour?
Does he or she seem overly hyperactive, aggressive, nervous, or on edge?
Did you know that these behaviours could be related to diet?
Ruling out a potential dietary connection is a great first step to discovering underlying problem and solutions to unusual behaviour.
If your pet is displaying strange or unusual behaviour, they are trying to tell you something. Behavioural issues can put stress on your entire family and can affect the relationship you have with your pet. Because they can’t speak, it sometimes takes creative problem-solving to get an understanding of how to help your pet. It’s important to keep an open mind and involve a professional if needed.
“Strange” behaviour can have many causes and one of those is diet. Understanding the root of any behaviour is the first step to finding the best solution(s).
Signs That Something Is Up With Your Pet
Stress-related behaviour can come in many forms including:
Nervousness e.g. overly submissive behaviour—tucking the tail and flattening the ears, “inappropriate” urination, showing their hackles with tail and ears down, showing the whites of the eyes, unprovoked hiding or cowering, low growling, excessive drooling or panting, chronic diarrhea, low appetite, seeming nervousness to eat their food, snapping, or biting
Hyperactivity e.g. apparently endless energy, jumping up, excessive barking, excessive movement, difficulty settling, obsessive/repetitive behaviours, excessive barking, excessively fast eating, and ”inappropriate” urination or defecation
Aggression e.g. unprovoked growling, snapping, showing their hackles with tail and ears up, scratching or biting, leash aggression, dog aggression, people aggression, resource guarding (food/toy aggression), “inappropriate” urination or defecation
You’ll notice that some of these behaviours appear under multiple headings. Because the behaviours can have their roots in different issues it’s important to understand the nature of your pet’s behaviour in order to help them through it.
Dietary Causes of “Bad” Behaviour
Too Much Sugar (Processed Starches)
We know that in human children, processed starches and sugars can cause significant behavioural changes, including hyperactivity, emotional outbursts, and inattention. It is true for pets as well. A fresh food diet is important for providing the nutrients the brain and endocrine system need to deal with stress and anxiety, including L-lysine, natural-source vitamin Bs, vitamin C, zinc, iron, and more. A fresh food diet also eliminates processed starches and sugars that can increase inflammatory response and induce hyperactivity.
Low Quality Ingredients
Low quality ingredients that are highly processed or from poor quality sources require more added synthetic supplementation. Highly processed fats can turn into harmful trans fats. Starches are metabolized easily into sugar and don’t provide much beneficial fibre. Additionally, synthetic supplements aren’t equal to naturally occurring vitamins and minerals and errors can easily be made when it comes to dosage. FDA pet food recalls for poisonous levels of synthetic vitamins are frequent enough to be of concern. Quality really does matter when it comes to food!
If you’re not feeding your pet fresh food, you really don’t know what you’re feeding. Many processed foods contain harmful chemical additives that preserve the food for longer shelf life. Chemicals could also include toxic colorants such as Red #40 or Yellow #5 (both linked to some forms of cancer and auto-immune diseases) and preservatives such as ethoxyquin, a controversial chemical used as a fat preservative in pet foods. Ethoxyquin is also a pesticide that has been banned for use in human food in North America and in both human and pet foods in other countries including Australia and the EU. We believe it doesn’t make sense to feed chemicals to your pet daily and expect health and longevity to be the result.
Not Enough Omega 3 Fatty Acids
If your pet is eating processed grain or legume-based foods, the likelihood that they are getting enough Omega 3 fats is low. Omega 3 fats are short-chain fatty acids that help reduce inflammation in almost every tissue in the body including gut lining, joints and ligaments, kidneys, urinary tract, brain, nerves, reproductive organs, and eyes. Omega 6s promote inflammation. While pets do need some omega 6s, they need more Omega 3s. The recommended ratio is at least 3:1 Omega 3s to Omega 6s. In actuality, most pets eating processed foods are getting the reverse ratio. The brain relies heavily on quality dietary Omega 3 fatty acids to develop and maintain its daily functions so it is important to track and adjust these levels as you plan your pet’s diet. You can learn more about how to choose Omega 3 supplements here.
Changes in your pet’s food can be related to changes in their behaviour. If you’re thinking of switching from dry food to raw food, keep in mind that raw food is generally seen by animals as a “high value” food. This can change their behaviour around it. When an animal is fed the same food every single day, it creates food monotony and pets become bored with their food. As we all know, variety is the spice of life and it’s no different for pets! So, don’t be surprised if you see your pet getting really excited about their food when you add some fresh items to the diet. That is a normal and common reaction. Alternatively, some pets may show food guarding behaviour or food aggression when you make changes to their diet. This can be quite common but is something that may require a professional behaviourist to help you with if you can’t manage it on your own. If your pet shows aggressive behaviour while you’re making a switch to better food, stop the switch until you have a plan for how to manage the behaviour. Most cases have easy solutions.
Feeding From A Bowl
We learned about some behavioural studies out of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Illinois (not published yet!) show that feeding your pet from a bowl might be quite detrimental in terms of behaviour. A study of wild canines including wolves, African painted dogs, and several wild cat species showed how their eating behaviours are specific and dynamic and that altering that behaviour with the use of a bowl could cause food aggression and fussy eating. They recommend feeding your pet on a food mat, the floor, or a flat plate rather than a bowl in order to allow your pet to navigate their food more naturally. This might sound a bit strange at first, given what we have considered “normal” over the years, but feeding from a mat, the floor, or a flat plate can actually be a transformative practice for your pet.
Medical Causes of “Bad” Behaviour
A sore tummy can cause a lot of stress, especially if it’s chronic. Many pets are suffering from underlying gut damage or microbiome imbalances and food can make a huge difference in restoring gut health. Probiotics, bone broth, and healthy fibre, from sources including vegetables and ground flax seeds, can help repair the gut and repopulate it with healthy microbes. Once you address gut issues and any microbiome imbalance you may see huge changes in your pet’s behaviour, especially if they have had anxiety that previously seemed unexplainable.
Urinary Tract Issues
Urinary tract infections, crystals, and interstitial cystitis can all cause “inappropriate” urination. If your pet seems anxious, nervous, or is urinating in strange places, you’ll want to take your pet to the vet for a checkup to assess what might be happening. Diet is definitely a component in the development of urinary tract infections, crystals, and interstitial cystitis. A fresh food diet can really make a significant difference in resolving these serious health issues and helping your pet to be more comfortable. A fresh, meat-based diet can help balance urine pH, dissolve urinary crystals, and reduce inflammation in the body.
If you have a pet that is displaying aggression or an unusual fear of things it wasn’t previously afraid of, an eye examination by a veterinarian is recommended. Some animals have limited vision due to congenital abnormalities and some lose their sight due to old age or health complications. Aggression can also be a sign that they aren’t seeing clearly. In addition to addressing the above, it is important to include lots of Omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidants into your pet’s diet if they are having trouble with their eyes.
If your pet loses their hearing, it can cause a world of anxiety. They can become easily startled and may act inappropriately. If you suspect your pet’s hearing may be compromised, book a check up to see what’s happening.
Pain and Stress
If an animal is in pain, it is natural for their behaviour to change. Anxiety and aggression are signs that your pet might have hurt themselves or that they aren’t feeling well. If aggressive behaviour develops suddenly and seems to have no other explanation, this could be the cause.
Stress In Your Household
If you’re stressed, your pet can feel it. A recent study out of Sweden showed that when our stress hormones increase, our pets’ do too and at the same frequency. (1) It might seem self-evident but it is important to state the value of managing our own stress so our pets feel safe and happy. Household changes can also cause anxiety for your pet so if you change something and your pet’s behaviour changes, explore the possible solutions to those changes so everyone can rest easy.
What You Can Do To Solve Behavioural Issues?
Take Your Pet for a Check Up with an Integrative Vet– Ensure that your pet isn’t suffering from an underlying health issue or problem.
Eliminate Processed Foods– Ensure that your pet is getting the nutrients he or she needs for healthy brain function.
Hire a Nutritionist– If you’re not sure how to feed a balanced fresh food diet, we are here to help!
Hire a Behaviourist– If there’s a behaviour you just can’t get control of, hire a professional. Ask us about our recommendations.
In summary, we cannot emphasize too strongly that diet is a foundational key to finding out what’s wrong with your pet. So, if your pet is showing you mysterious behaviours that seem to have no immediate logical explanation or purpose, consider eliminating processed foods and selecting fresh choices instead. If the issues still persist, it might be time to hire a professional to help!
We invite you to contact us for expert diet and lifestyle planning with our Animal Nutrition Specialist.