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Brain Food

Can diet affect canine brain development? By Claudia Bensimoun.


A Dog's Diet Influences His Behavior and Intelligence

Did you know that your dog's diet could have an influence on his behavior and intelligence? Researchers now believe that one can change the neurological and physical aspects of a dog's brain, directly affecting behavior and intelligence through healthy nutrition.

Good Nutrition is Vital To Puppies

Recent studies at the University of Toronto by a team of researchers and behavioral neurologist Dr. Norton Milgram demonstrate that complete development of a dog's brain is extremely rapid during the first four weeks after a pup's birth. It then slows down considerably until the puppy reaches adulthood. "Inclusion of fish oil rich in Omega 3 fatty acids in maternal foods has been shown to increase learning ability and ERG -assessed retinal function in growing puppies," says Dr. Milgram. Feeding fish oils that are rich in DHA improves how quickly a puppy responds to training and also enhances his cognitive development.

Major nutrients in a healthy and balanced diet for our canine companions include protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals and fresh water. A well-nourished dog needs to eat a variety of foods to get a good range and balance of vitamins and minerals. By choosing premium brands of dog foods made with high quality, easily digestible ingredients, you are giving your dog an excellent starting point for ensuring that he is getting adequate nourishment for his brain, as well as his body. Switching to healthier treats and supplementing foods with steamed sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, kale and other vegetables helps provide your dogs with extra nutrients.

There are plenty of other human foods that can be safely shared with your furry best friend. These include lean meats, cooked vegetables and fresh fruits (with the exception of grapes). As long as they do not make up the bulk of your dog's diet, and you're not feeding table scraps that contain too much fat, these are healthy and nutritious additions, and add variety to the diet.

Seafood is loaded with protein, minerals, and enzymes when served fresh. They also contain lots of collagen. Adding spirulina and chlorella, which provide a more concentrated source of chlorophyll, will also help to reduce inflammation. Both spirulina and chlorella are algae that are also rich in essential fatty acids.

Linolenic (Omega 3) and linoleic (Omega 6) fatty acids play an important part in your dog's diet. Dogs require both, but fat sources differ greatly in their concentrated amounts of Omegas 3 and 6. Both continue to be a major focus of study when it comes down to behavior and nutrition. Omega 3 is found in high levels in fish oils. It is also found in flaxseed, wheat germ, canola and soybean oils.

"For the first year of a dog's life, balanced nutrition is vital," says Dr. Stanley Coren, Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. "Without balanced nutrition, the nerve cells of a dog's brain will not mature properly; and the brain will be smaller in volume and weight and not function as well. Poorly nourished dogs act less intelligently throughout the rest of their lives. A dog's brain and behavior is shaped to some degree by events in the womb. When the puppy is ten days of age, we can easily count the number of neural connections (synapses) that a single cell has with other cells in the brain since there will be only a few hundred. By the time a puppy reaches 35 days of age, the number of connections for each neuron in the brain will have multiplied to around 12,000."

Most dog lovers have no control over the nutrition of their dog's parents. Nonetheless, the diet during the first year of a dog's life is most important, so owners can still influence their pet's development.
Puppy Keeva (who grew to be She Walks in Beauty RL1, RL2) eats a healthy meal on her first night in her new home. Photo courtesy of owner Kimberly Wilson.

Negative Effects of Inadequate Diets

Packaged dog foods may not include everything your dog needs for healthy brain growth. "Commercial pet foods don't contain some things we wish they did: adequate quantities and qualities of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, as well as the more intangible qualities unique to live, like fresh foods," says veterinarian Dr. Richard Pitcairn. "Secondly, they contain other things we wish they didn't: slaughterhouse wastes, toxic products from spoiled foodstuffs, non-nutritive fillers, heavy metal contaminants, sugar, pesticides, drug residues, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives and bacteria and fungi contaminants. All processed pet foods are missing something that seems to be the most important 'nutrient' of all. This key ingredient is practically ignored by nutritional scientists, but we can sense when it's there. It is a quality found only in fresh grown, uncooked whole foods: life energy!"

Natural ingredients are also recommended by Andi Brown, the director of Halo and author of The Whole Pet Diet. "Whether your dog is young or old, adequate nutrition and mental stimulation will keep his brain functioning at its peak, and allow him to develop and keep a high level of fluid intelligence. Artificial ingredients are often highly antagonistic and can actually contribute to an animal's mental and emotional imbalance," says Brown. "Some additives can be so detrimental that they can actually have the same effect on an animal as hallucinogenic drugs have on people. According to Best Friends Animal Society, the most common reason animals are put down by veterinarians or turned into shelters is because of unruly behavior." Brown suggests that adding minerals and vitamins, especially the complete complex of B vitamins, to your pooches diet, will aid in behavior problems.

Healthy Ingredients

There are a few major nutrients that good and healthy canine diets will include such as protein, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals and water. All well-fed dogs need to eat a healthy diet each day to get the necessary balance of vitamins and minerals.

*Choose premium brands and possibly organic brands of dog food that are made with nutritious high quality ingredients that can be digested easily.  for organic and healthier treats and supplemented dog foods that contain pumpkin, sweet potato, green beans, kale, carrots and other healthy vegetables and fruits. Healthy ingredients will give your pooch all the extra nutrients that he needs.

*Feed fish like salmon that contain healthy fish oils during puppyhood. This helps your pup to focus on training, and aids with increasing his attention span during training. Fish oils are also beneficial for cognitive development.

*Provide your dog with safe human foods such as lean meats, lightly steamed vegetables and plenty of fresh fruits like blueberries. Keep in mind that dogs should never be fed grapes. Healthy fruits and vegetables should never be the main bulk of your dogs ingredient list. Some table scraps are okay, as long as they are healthy and free of fats. Table scraps that are healthy and nutritious additions to a dogs diet can be great. They add plenty of variety and introduce him to different foods.

*Root vegetables also provide many important healing properties for dogs. They help by providing stabilizing energy that aids in helping your dog to focus.

*"Seafood is loaded with protein, minerals and enzymes when fresh and also has lots of collagen," says Brown, Halo "Spirulina and chlorella are a more concentrated source of chlorophylls than any other food. Both of these algae help reduce inflammation and are also rich in essential fatty acids."

Cognitive Function in Mature Canines

Dr. Milgram, together with Dr. Carl Cotman, a neurochemist from the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia, University of California, Irvine and colleagues studied old dogs as examples of human aging. Both these researchers agreed that "Oxidative damage is a key feature in the aged brains of animals and people, and that the brains of individuals with Alzheimer's disease demonstrate greater damage." Dr. Cotman also suggests that by employing antioxidant supplements like vitamins E and C, one may "improve cognitive decline" in people as well, since mature dogs develop similar pathological changes in their brains.

Carotenoids like beta carotene that are mixed together with certain minerals like selenium, fatty acids DHA and EPA, carnitine and alpha lipoic acid were also found to hinder formations of amyloids in older dogs. Dr. Milgram's research team used a diet that was rich in nutrients for "cognitive enrichment," and deduced that it slowed down and sometimes partially "reversed" cognitive decline in our dogs. 

Good nutrition is important for the canine brain at any age. "Whether your dog is young or old, adequate nutrition and mental stimulation will keep his brain functioning at its peak, and allow him to develop and keep a high level of fluid intelligence," says Dr. Coren.

References

Animal Wellness, Volume 15, Issue 1. 

This information is not a substitute for veterinary care. Discuss any potential dietary changes with your veterinarian.

Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.


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