How Your Pet’s Diet Affects Behavior

Do you know how your pet's diet affects behavior? Finding the right dog or cat food can be a game changer in a pet's mood, energy and more.

Fall is here and school is, too! This month in the Behavior Blog, I’ll be covering some of the basics necessary for behavior and training success.. Each week will be a different topic, starting with how your pet’s diet affects behavior. If you are ready to begin training, check out our Dog Training Classes. Enter the promotional code SCHOOL to receive a 10 percent discount on any group class during September and October 2016.

Were you up early this week, helping kids get out the door to school? I bet you checked that they had a lunch plan – either packed or money to purchase – and that they had a good breakfast. At our house, the morning routine includes a secret ingredient smoothie where I can hide all the necessary nutrients that kids wrinkle their noses at, but which help those brains stay alert and keep the nerves settled more than sugar-laden breakfast choices would. Educators and moms agree that eating a good breakfast helps improve classroom performance. And who among us would expect the kids to sit still and tune in, to learn and get along with others, when fed a bowl of sugar and corn? Just like kids, your pet’s diet affects behavior.

As Behavior Program Manager at WHS, I counsel clients to improve their pets’ behavior. We always discuss diet, as well as how your pet’s diet affects behavior. I am not a veterinarian, nor do I have extensive nutritional studies. In addition, I do not give specific recommendations about balancing nutritional needs.

However, I do observe huge changes when my clients alter their pets’ feeding regimen to reduce simple carbohydrates and to increase the quality of the ingredients. And I can share a few decades of anecdotal experience with you.

A friend of mine with a cat “that you’ll never see” suddenly found her pet to be quite sociable a few weeks after changing food to a grain-free choice. A puppy class client in tears with her puppy’s “whacked out” personality reported huge behavior changes within a month. The secret? The combination of moving to a quality diet and implementing the training she learned in class. And aggression cases? I have too many stories to share, but I’m always a little giddy when I see that there’s room for improvement in the pet’s diet. A simple change can mean the difference between tolerable behavior and behavior that might create a life-ending scenario.

Of course, before making drastic changes in your pet’s diet, consult with your veterinarian. Especially if your dog or cat has health considerations, including dental or weight issues, metabolic or skin disease, or a potential parasitic load. Once your vet gives a clean bill of health, do your homework. Consider your dog’s behavior, breed, age and energy needs. Read labels. Research. 

There are hundreds of sites online to read about pet nutrition but few of them offer unbiased reviews. Some are blatantly promoting a particular brand. Others advocate a raw or home-cooked diet which can be tricky to balance for your pet’s needs without extensive nutritional training. My favorite site for current, thorough information is the Dog Food Advisor. I haven’t found a similar site yet for our feline friends, but this is a good starting point for cat food. 

For example, we recently switched the feeding protocols at the shelter. Overall, our animal welfare team is reporting less waste and odor. This is a nice side benefit to feeding quality.  Before the change, I couldn’t recommend the brand we used to carry in our shelter pet supply store. But now I unreservedly do. And considering it’s a 4-star brand on Dog Food Advisor, I felt good about bringing it home to my pets, too.  If you are looking for a new food, maybe it’s the right one for your pet?

In any case, I do hope you’ll stop in and see us. Our pet supply store also carries training tools and enrichment toys for your pets. I’ll be highlighting our best picks in the next few blog posts. Enjoy this lovely crisp weather and if you are ready to bring your dog back to school, remember we have classes and private lessons for all your training needs. Feel free to contact us at Behavior@whs4pets.org if we can help you with your training questions.

Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA

Behavior Program Manager at Willamette Humane Society
Named “the dog lady” by peers in grammar school, Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA first became a California licensed veterinary technician, then finished a BA in Psychology while doing undergraduate research on the human-canine bond at the University of Montana. After that, she was recruited by the Purdue University Veterinary Teaching Hospital to develop the ABC puppy school, to assist during veterinary behavior consultations and to help create and instruct the Purdue DOGS! behavior modification course for veterinary staff. Catherine is now an adjunct faculty member at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, Oregon and instructor for the state’s only community college level professional dog trainer certification preparation program which began in Fall 2014.
Catherine Comden, CPDT-KA