The missing link between diet and your dog’s mental health

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Dr Matthew Muir
brown and white puppy sitting on arm chair looking out window

Dog mental health is complex. Unlike us, dogs can’t verbalise their feelings, making it tricky to understand what they’re experiencing. Seeing your pup struggle with a mental health issue can be very upsetting and frustrating, especially when you don’t know the cause.

Good moods start with good nutrition — creating more balance in your dog’s gut is a great first step. Like humans, our pup's gut helps produce essential chemical messengers that can influence emotions and brain cognition.

Why your dog’s gut could be the key to mental wellbeing

Your dog’s mental wellbeing can be influenced by the food they eat. This happens via the gut-brain axis — the vital line of communication between the gut microbiome and the brain.

Gut-brain axis diagram

If your dog’s microbiome is unbalanced (dysbiosis), it may affect the production of hormones and neurotransmitters (like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) and contribute to mental health problems like anxiety, depression, and hyperarousal. Studies have also linked the microbiome to motivation, obedience, sociability, and receptivity to training.

Let’s take a closer look at these health issues (and diet’s role) in more detail.

4 common mental health issues linked to diet

1. Anxiety and the benefit of omega-3

A study showed that 70% of dogs exhibit one trait associated with anxiety — while nearly a third of Australian people will experience an anxiety-related condition in their lifetime. Your pup picks up on your mood and energy more than you might realise. When you’re stressed or worked up about something, your dog can mirror your feelings in what’s known as transference anxiety.

Households that have a tendency towards anxious moods or big emotions can trigger a dog’s sympathetic nervous system, leading to fight, flight or freeze behaviours. Sometimes, this can cause fussy eating or a loss of appetite (inappetence) because they’re not in a relaxed or safe state of mind to consider food.

Other links between anxiety and food can include:

  • Transference anxiety: dog parents that are worried their dog is not eating or getting enough nutrition can amplify the transference anxiety without realising, putting their dog off their food even more.

  • Competition: if you’re lucky enough to have multiple pups in your life, the feeling of needing to compete for food and resources can also lead to a perception of threat that could be a source of anxiety and inappetence.

  • Shifts in routine or sensory overload: changes or overwhelm can be stressful factors in a dog’s life. These includes loud noises, different smells, new pets or family members, moving house, or long periods of separation from their parents.

How to support dogs with anxiety through nutrition

If a pup isn’t getting the right balance of nutrients, it may affect their gut-brain axis and the formation of happy neurotransmitters and hormones.

Giving your dog complete and balanced real food meals, like Lyka, ensures each mouthful nourishes your dog’s mind and body. Designed by board certified veterinary nutritionists, each Lyka meal contains microbiome-boosting ingredients like prebiotic fibre and DHA and EPA from omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil.

You can amplify the benefits of Lyka meals with our Calm Supplement: a daily dose of stress relief, with a mix of superfoods to soothe the mind and body. Decaffeinated green tea extract and probiotic BL-999 support balanced behaviour, whether your pup experiences separation anxiety, whining or barking, soiling or marking indoors.

You can also help your dog learn how to self-soothe by chewing which releases endorphins to counter feelings of stress. Choose long-lasting, single protein treats like Lyka Pig Twigs, for a healthy chew.

2. Depression and the importance of a low-GI load

Boredom and lack of enrichment can lead to depression, but it can also happen after the loss of another dog or family member — our pups are sensitive souls.

Depression and stress can affect the composition of your dog’s microbiome through stress hormones (cortisol), inflammation and the autonomic nervous system. This can affect the absorption of nutrients and lead to dysbiosis, further affecting their gut-brain axis.

So, if your pup seems a little low in spirits, their diet could hold some valuable clues.

Natural ways to address depression in dogs

Depressive behaviour can result from diets high in carbohydrates like wheat, rice and potatoes. High glycaemic index (High-GI) foods like these can cause blood sugar spikes followed by crashes in energy and mood.

Alternatively, dog food containing a low GI load with nutritious carbohydrates like fresh purple sweet potato and butternut squash release their energy slowly. A diet containing low-moderate healthy fat and low GI carbohydrates to balance the protein content and support serotonin production is ideal for all dogs, especially those prone to mental health problems, like depression.

Obesity may also play a role in depression and chronic illness more broadly. If their weight is preventing exercise, play, training and enrichment, this impacts their mood. Portion control and a nutritious, bioavailable diet can support weight management.

Some widely used additives and colouring agents have been linked to inflammation, oxidative stress and even hormone inhibition, which may affect your dog’s neurotransmitter production and cognitive function. A real food diet, like Lyka, eliminates the need for preservatives reducing the risk of mood disorders.

Depressive behaviour has also been linked to advanced-glycation end products (AGEs), especially acrylamide, that causes inflammation in the brain. AGEs are compounds created when carbohydrate-rich food is cooked at high heat, like kibble that’s processed in temperatures of up to 200°C.

If your dog is depressed or needs more stimulation at home, your veterinarian might also suggest slow or interactive feeders — these are great boredom busters, designed to keep their mind active.

3. Aggression and the impact of anti-inflammatory food

We love a lively pup as much as anyone, but when does their boisterous behaviour become a problem?

If your pup is aggressive, defensive about food, or reactive around dogs or humans, it could be worth considering whether their behaviour is linked to a nutritional imbalance.

Anti-inflammatory food for aggressive dogs

Processed food like kibble often has high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids from refined carbohydrates, which promotes inflammation in the brain (neuroinflammation) and body.

Behavioural problems, like aggression and anxiety, have been linked to cognitive decline and neuroinflammation, especially in older dogs. Other research on aggressive and phobic dogs has identified a potential link between an imbalanced microbiome and behaviour.

This research shows the direct link between food and its impact on a dog’s gut-brain axis, highlighting the importance of high-quality nutrition for our dogs.

The right balance of micronutrients, including the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 could be key factors in alleviating aggressive behaviour in pups. Lyka uses a low, optimal ratio of between 2:1 and 3.6:1 to avoid the proinflammatory effect of too much omega-6.

Strong anti-inflammatory ingredients like turmeric, ginger, and spirulina, may also help to reduce inflammation (including neuroinflammation) in your pup.

4. Hyperarousal (hyperactivity) and real food nutrition

If your dog struggles to settle or has periods of heightened physical and emotional energy, they’re probably hyper-aroused.

Erratic behaviour can make it difficult for your dog to be receptive to commands and training and may often be seen as naughtiness or disobedience.

How a real food diet fuels consistency and focus

Artificial additives and chemicals (found in highly processed pet foods) could be responsible for your pup’s hyperarousal. Glutamate that enhances the meaty ‘umami’ taste that dogs love, but it’s also a neurotransmitter that creates excitement in the brain and behavioural changes.

Hyperarousal may also be caused by a diet rich in refined carbohydrates that may suddenly increase your dog’s blood glucose levels — a bit like when we eat too much sugar — often followed by lethargy and inactivity.

A switch to a diet full of nourishing real food ingredients to fuel their focus (instead of hyperactivity) is an excellent start for your dog. Each Lyka meal is made from a variety of fresh produce, gently cooked then frozen to lock in the taste and nutrients.

Good food for good moods

Protein is essential for dogs, but too much protein (especially very fatty beef from poor-quality sources) may lead to overstimulation and increased arousal. This is why high-quality protein, like wild-caught fish or barn-raised turkey, is best. Turkey and fish are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that helps to formulate serotonin and can assist with mood regulation.

Other fresh nutrients and ingredients to benefit your pup’s mental health include:

  • Omega-3: DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids enhance brain function including memory and learning and protects against hyperarousal. Found in fatty fish, fish oil and flax seeds.

  • Spinach: rich in tryptophan as well as folate which is used to produce dopamine — the good mood hormone.

  • Magnesium: this mineral is another vital factor in serotonin creation, but it can be depleted when your dog feels anxious. If your pup’s magnesium levels are low, it can increase the release of stress hormones, creating a cycle of reduced resilience to stress. Leafy greens like broccoli, spinach, and kale can help: they’re rich sources of magnesium.

  • Zinc: a zinc deficiency can affect brain function, learning and memory. To prevent this, look for high quality animal proteins like grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and fatty fish, like sardines.

Real food, real results

Our dogs trust us to make the healthiest choices for them. Lyka is made with real food ingredients you can trust. Formulated by board certified veterinary nutritionists and backed by science, each meal helps promote a happy gut and even happier pups.

Lyka food is expertly balanced with high quality protein, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, vitamin B, zinc, and with a low-GI load. Our range of meals are gently cooked and free from acrylamides and preservatives — ideal food for dogs with mental health issues.

If you’re concerned about your dog’s mental health or considering a dietary change, speak to your vet and get some training support from a positive reinforcement behaviourist.

This article was reviewed by Lyka's veterinary and nutrition experts

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