Pet psychology - and how food fuels their brains

pet psychology canagan

Our lovable pets brighten our day with bundles of energy, make us smile with their funny quirks and wow us with their lightning speed reflexes the moment a stick or a toy flies from our hand. We all know the power of walkies or racing up a tree in protecting our pets’ physical health. But keeping our companions mentally sharp and happy is equally important.

Being mindful of the food we’re dishing up for our pets is crucial for their health. Just as our diet influences our alertness and mood — the food choices we make can either leave us feeling sluggish or supercharged — the same applies to our companions. Nourishing our furry friends with ‘brain food’ packed with quality, nutritious ingredients strengthens their cognitive function while keeping them happy and energised.

The experts at grain free pet food brand Canagan have delved into the relationship between the mind and meals, including what we can learn from their ancestors’ diets and brain-boosting superfoods to serve up.

Quality nutrition is essential in early life

Scientists studying dogs specifically believe that it’s possible to influence the neurological and physical aspects of a canine brain — so their behaviour and intelligence — through nutrition.

This is why a nourishing diet is essential in a pet’s early years. The University of Toronto found that a dog’s brain develops rapidly during the first four weeks after birth, then slows significantly until the pup reaches adulthood. It’s therefore wise to incorporate foods like fish oil, which is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, as this can positively impact learning ability in growing puppies. Scientific studies also show that feeding puppies high antioxidant diets improves trainability. The sooner you start, the stronger and healthier your puppy’s brain will develop.

Without balanced nutrition, the nerve cells of their brain will not mature properly. In fact, this vital organ will be smaller in volume and weight, leaving it unable to function effectively. This can have negative ramifications on a pup’s intelligence for the rest of their life.

Mirror their ancestral diet

Cats and dogs have acute instincts and senses. To sharpen these, while keeping your companion alert and energised, it’s vital to fuel them with high-quality, natural ingredients. It’s worth remembering that they’re carnivores who, in the wild, would enjoy mini meat-based meals, as regularly as possible, throughout the day. Because they’re highly adapted to meat, it’s advisable to feed this instinct and so mirror their ancestral diet.

Complement high meat content with a balance of vegetables and botanicals in every bowl too. Exploring a grain free diet enables this, especially because pets find it difficult to digest grains — just ensure you make the switch gradually to avoid digestive upset.

Here are four natural superfoods with brain-boosting benefits:

  • Meat and poultry, like chicken, is another excellent source of protein, vitamins, selenium and phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential mineral that the body uses to create energy and make new cells
  • Fish, like salmon, is a delicious source of easily digestible protein, Omega 3. DHA, a component in Omega 3 fatty acid which aids the proper brain and eye development of puppies, while improving cognitive function in older dogs. Like meat, fish also contains selenium — a powerful antioxidant that fights oxidative stress
  • Vegetables, like sweet potato, are a highly digestible source of slow release energy and soluble fibre that is rich in vitamins and antioxidants. These nutrients improve intelligence, memory and cognitive function
  • Botanicals, like camomile and marigold, can improve brain power in older pets especially. Camomile is also thought to reduce stress

You may notice that your pet begs periodically — especially close to a mealtime — if you’re eating or they can smell a yummy dish being cooked. A food bowl packed with essential vitamins should satisfy them for longer. Resist throwing tit-bits from the table, as this encourages naughty habits and certain treats we enjoy can be toxic to our companions. Brighten their day with pet appropriate treats in moderation, but ensure these are natural and nutritious with a wholesome blend of superfoods.

Poor nutrition can trigger bad behaviour

Have you ever felt lethargic after eating a big meal? Hyperactive after enjoying a sugar treat? Or struggled to focus when your stomach’s rumbling? Poor eating habits can affect our behaviour. Our companions feel this too.

It’s believed that artificial ingredients can actually contribute to an animal’s mental and emotional imbalance. Moreover, some experts assert that certain additives can trigger unruly behaviour. They may be hyperactive, distracted and difficult to train.

Cognitive decline

As pets grow older, they can experience cognitive decline, just like us. Dogs may lose their puppy silliness, slow down on walks and sleep far more. Cats may stop self-grooming and forget where their cat flap is.

A common disorder for senior companions is ‘Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome’ (CDS), which is strikingly similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. While there is unfortunately no cure for canine dementia, it can be alleviated with a good diet.

CDS progresses very gradually and early symptoms are attributed to normal ageing. Use the acronym ‘DISHA’ to help you spot the signs:

  • D is for Disorientation - do they look confused?
  • I is for Interaction — Is your companion behaving differently around people or other pets they’re familiar with?
  • S is for Sleep — Are they sleeping far more during the day? They might also be more vocal at night, barking, howling or — if a cat — meowing
  • H is for House training — Are they increasingly toilet accidents? A cat may forget where their litter tray is. They may go to the toilet at a random spot in the house, or cry to go outside at a different time than usual
  • A is for Activity — Are they becoming more (or less) active than usual? Restlessness, like pacing around, is a common sign. Cats, which are naturally very clean creatures, may also stop grooming

Your companion may also show increasing levels of separation anxiety, growing upset when they’re apart from you or home alone. Otherwise, they may generally seem sad. Their appetite may change too, for example you may notice they’re eating more or less than usual.

If you’re concerned, seek veterinary assistance — they’ll perform specific tests and analyse the symptoms you share to form a diagnosis.

Our pets’ brains work in fascinating ways. Their cognitive make-up is a complex mix of instinct and trained behaviour. As loving pet owners, it’s our responsibility to feed them quality nutrition in a balanced diet that protects their brain health, keeps them mentally sharp and their spirits high. Add to the mix stimulation through play and walks, along with lots of love and, there you have it — the recipe for a healthy, happy companion.