Today we will be talking about a topic that is a bit advanced, one that does not get the attention it should yet.
Mental Health & Food
I will talk about what mental health means and what to do if behaviour changes based on a few details about possible reasons for our pets’ mood
There are a bunch of indicators and benchmarks that help us understand how our pets are feeling and being able to read those is the only way to be confident, stay cool and make adaptations to the diet and environment if needed without worrying or stressing.
The reason I think food is key is, that Nutrition is the fuel and building blocks available to every cell and every metabolic process in the body. Just as a bone cannot function properly without adequate calcium supply; a car can’t drive without gas – a brain and nervous system cannot function without its necessary fuel.
What does happy / mentally healthy mean?
Mental health can be kind of measured along two lines – one is obviously the behaviour, dogs and cats do not try to hide their emotions like us humans so we can always learn their genuine emotions from their behaviour.
Loss of appetite, moodiness, being inactive can all be signs for decrease in happiness – first stay logical and cool. Ask yourself – Did anything change recently? Whether the weather got really hot or maybe your house help has been on leave, there can be easy explanations. Changes in the diet or routines can also take energy to adapt to!
The other benchmark is a more definite one – testing the functions of the hormonal glands, Thyroid most importantly and doing blood work will show us if the chemical balance in the body is off possibly causing the hormones to put your dogs’ or cats’ mood off.
If you find an issue here, that is something you can come back with to the diet and specifically address the underlying issue with food by restoring the nutrient ratios your pet needs.
Feeding the building blocks of what needs to be fixed and get the glands working properly again will enable your pet to be happy and the brain work on point again.
How do I know whether my dog / cat is happy?
There is no ultimate answer for everyone to this question – all dogs and cats are different, some enjoy being more active while others are more the relaxed kiddos.
So never compare your pet to another animal, just compare them to themselves earlier. If your pet shows a change in behaviour and that stays for more than a day or two, that would be my cue to start thinking about what is going on.
What do I do if my pet seems low?
Do not stress. Stay calm and make sure that you are not giving them anxious vibes as well. Stay your normal self around the dog or cat. If you are apprehensive or scared, your furry will sense that and possibly act in a way that makes you think they are not ok when actually they are just mirroring you.
Same btw goes for food – only feed your pet what you are comfortable with, if you do not feel well about a certain food then there is a good chance your pet will pick up the vibe and avoid that food since something doesn’t seem to be right with it.
Excursion: Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety can be really traumatic for parents and dogs alike. You can work through it though. A dog doesn’t want to be separated from the pack, when you leave the house they have to trust that you come back and that they are safe without you until then.
If your dog fully trusts this process and has no reason to think anything will happen then the anxiety will disappear.
There are many ways to train this and any trigger based reaction – whether it is barking at the door bell, food aggression or separation anxiety. The easiest to me is just exposing the animal to the trigger for a very short time and rewarding no reaction. Then increasing the exposure and always rewarding no reaction until it is normal and the trigger not triggering anymore.
Giving them something else to focus on like a chew is also a really good idea to relax and distract them as well.
How does food tie into all of this?
In general of course we all get hangry when we are not fed well. There are many different ways this can show, whether its long term nutrient lack or immediate hunger.
Now we’re getting a bit chemical…
When blood sugar drops, the body tries to bring it back up. It pumps out epinephrine (adrenaline), a hormone that, among other things, tells the liver to make more glucose (blood sugar).
Adrenaline increases the heart rate, elevates blood pressure and boosts energy supplies.
Cortisol is released in a next step after the adrenalin. Cortisol boosts energy levels by metabolizing the blood sugar that the liver made in response to the release of adrenalin.
When your pet eats, it matters what they eat. To prevent excessive ups and downs in blood sugar levels to keep the hormonal response balanced.
The food you give your pet is broken down into proteins and those again into amino acids in the digestive process.
To avoid sudden spikes in blood sugar the key is to feed food that nourishes your pets body evenly – Some foods make blood sugar shoot up fast and drop a few hours later. Other foods keep it on a more even level. A food’s glycemic index is a good way to know which is which.
The glycemic Index gives you an idea of how fast the body turns the food’s components into blood sugar.
The higher the glycemic index, the quicker and higher your pets blood sugar will spike, calling for adrenaline and cortisol release to regulate the blood sugar more excessively.
High-glycemic foods include:
Simple sugars, Processed Foods, Carbs like bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes
Low-glycemic foods include:
Proteins from animal sources are much more complete than those from plant sources thus easy to digest for our pets. If you’re feeding your dog or cat grains or processed foods, these incomplete sources of protein can cause a plethora of health issues long term.
So in conclusion – feeding a poor diet low in meat will make your pets blood sugar levels unstable and fail to nourish their bodily functions and can contribute to them feeling stressed and or aggressive.
Let us talk about other nutrients now that affect your pets mood –
Serotonin is another chemical in the brain that can affect mood. Eating foods that contain the essential amino acid known as tryptophan can help the body to produce more serotonin.
Tryptophan is the amino-acid building block for serotonin. Serotonin is a major neurotransmitter in the brain and central nervous system which influences the mood & sleep significantly.
Low levels of serotonin are associated with increased mental health problems and behavioural abnormalities in humans and dogs. High levels of serotonin are associated with feeling calm and content.
So let’s look at how to get that Serotonin naturally!
The body needs Tryptophan to make Serotonin. Being an amino acid, Tryptophan comes from protein in the diet. Often vets will suggest more carbs and less protein in the diet when Serotonin Levels are low and they argue that less protein intake means less amino acids are present thus less nutrients and chemicals are fighting to be transported to the bloodstream and brain. This logic is just as wrong as it is concerning renal diets where low protein just makes the pet dependent on drugs but never can heal.
So instead of weakening the field, make it stronger by feeding foods particularly high in Tryptophan like eggs, fish and turkey. Fish is rich in tryptophan and omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA as well as vitamin B12 and B6 which are needed to bind to the tryptophane, so it helps the body produce serotonin, giving a mood boost and reducing inflammation, protecting the nerves in the brain.
Why Gut Health is major
More than 90% of all the serotonin in the body is in the gut! This accounts for why psychoactive medications such as anti-depressants often have gastrointestinal side effects.
The “gut microbiome” (composed of the billions of bacteria that inhabit the gut) is known to hugely impact mental health. The bacteria in the gut play a dynamic role in the entire body’s state. An imbalance of bacteria can mean that vital nutrients are stolen or harmful toxins produced.
Activity of certain bacteria in the gut produces by-products that affect neurochemistry in our pets bodies which can influence other body functions and the hormonal balance. So making sure the bacteria are healthy and the right ones is crucial and can only be achieved by feeding well.
While you are transitioning your dog or cat to a new diet or when you are introducing new foods to them, do not underestimate the powerful impact food can have.
For a pet that has been exposed to processed foods or medication for a long period of time it will take some effort to get used to real food.
There is a plethora of reasons for that, among them simply that the body is drained from all the work it is now able to do, you are giving your pet superior fuel now and the body has to adapt to making the most of it, basically dusting off all old machines and processes in the kidney, liver, skin, brain etc and getting them in perfect working condition. In the process your pet might also go through a detoxing phase where toxins are pushed out resulting in rashes, loosies or even discharge.
But this again is logical, the body is just trying to make the most out of the new found superior fuel and pushing out old stuff. In this process bacteria that are not supposed to be in the body die in favor of a better healthier body long term but in the process of the bad bacteria being digested and passed they can release some toxins which can cause a bad reaction but this is just a short term thing that tells you to go very slow but keep going.
Medication might have an immediate effect as opposed to food, but usually contributes to the underlying issues, most obviously by ruining the much mentioned microbiome.
Another example that shows us how important it is to know the reason for things instead of throwing meds at everything is the example of cholesterol – which is a very important nutrient for dogs.
But there are in fact diseases that may cause a dog’s level of cholesterol in the blood to be too high. These often get treated just by inhibiting production of cholesterol rather than solving the underlying issue. Most of the time, elevated cholesterol in dogs and cats are a sign for a disease involving the body’s hormones.
For instance, hypothyroidism, which is too little production of thyroid hormone, can decrease the level of an enzyme responsible for dissolving fats and therefore lead to high blood fats aka cholesterol. In fact, hypothyroidism is the most common cause of high blood cholesterol in dogs.
Diabetes, a deficiency of the hormone insulin, can also decrease critical levels of that fat-dissolving enzyme. Cushing’s disease, which results in too much production of the hormone cortisol, can result in high blood cholesterol, too, as can certain types of kidney disease.
In all of these cases, once you treat the underlying issue, for example by feeding better and healing the thyroid, the dog’s blood cholesterol levels return to normal.
In other words, Cholesterol is not an issue but just a symptom so it is pointless to treat the symptom rather than finding the actual problem and rectifying it.
Dogs prefer and benefit from engagement with their food that goes some way to mimic their natural instincts. Ideally, if we can ensure our dogs are spending a decent amount of time with their daily meals in an interactive and rewarding way, they will be much more excited about meal time and more calm after eating.
Hope this helps in some way ♥️
P.S. You can also watch our Real Talk (Instagram Live) session on the topic here 🙂