ODIE is an 18-month-old Labrador and until now she has been a picture of health. With a BCS of 5/9, she lives an active lifestyle with a young family in a semi-rural area.
Recently, following some advice given by a family friend and dog groomer, Odie’s owners have changed her diet from one high quality brand to another. You can see no objections to this as you’ve never received reports of adverse reactions to either product, but Odie has recently attended a nutritional assessment consultation with one of your nurse colleagues. Primary complaint: hyperactivity.
Odie’s owners have reported a notable change in behaviour: she’s becoming more possessive and stealing slippers and she barks a lot more and pulls on the lead when she sees another dog or birds.
Odie has always been a friendly dog but now she’s jumping up and grabbing at clothes whenever greeted by a new person. Plus over the past two weeks she has become increasingly food-obsessed. Because of this last link and the fact that all of this is uncharacteristic behaviour coincided with her change in diet, Odie’s owners are suspicious of the food.
Being a Thursday afternoon, immediately after this consultation ends you lock the door and the entire practice staff migrate upstairs for your fortnightly meeting. When it comes to discussing clinical cases, this is the freshest so first off the bat. The debate begins: does food have an effect on behaviour? Everyone seems to have an opinion, but not much evidence.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this debate has raged ever since commercial feeding of domestic animals became widespread. It’s a topic where anecdotal evidence and haphazard interpretations abound and often incites emotional responses rather than reasoned scientific critique.
One might say that the reasons for this are two-fold: 1. Humans attach strong social value to food and often project this value upon our pets; and 2. Feeding has historically proven to be the greatest mode by which we’ve modified the behaviour of our pets (particularly dogs), by means of enabling domestication.
If you’re anything like me, no study needs to prove to you that food is socially important. While at a very basic level we are seeking to fulfil nutritional requirements, there is no physiological reason for me to spend three hours in the kitchen with mum preparing two extravagant courses and a dessert.
We plainly do this and sit down over at least an hour because it facilitates our relationship. Food and feeding has become ritualised in that what we eat has surpassed its initial nutritional function. Food is a social resource and quite often morphs into an emotional one too.
When it comes to Odie and other dogs, food is first and foremost a resource. However, because of their social nature and adaptability, combined with the fact that feeding (either at dinner time or throughout the training process which is more frequent) is the focal point of many animal-human interactions, we can often ritualise the process for them also. As with the dinner with mum, food intakes are no longer about satisfying metabolic needs or hunger. Food is about bonding. Dare it be said: food is about love.
It turns out that Odie, now entering her juvenile years, has conscientiously attended and excelled in at least two training classes and performs many a trick and is exceedingly obedient (until the diet change, that is). Having been awarded two certificates from the trainer, her owners have dropped back on attending these sessions, opting for walks with the kids instead. This may have consequences.
Within the dog’s ethological framework, food acquisition and consumption may also fulfil a behavioural need. A great deal of motivation and time may have been spent on the process of obtaining food in the years preceding the level of domestication we see today. But our dog companions no longer partake this energy expenditure and environmental enrichment when a nutritious food is readily provided for them without due consideration.1
One could argue that one major function of responsible pet ownership is recognising Odie’s requirement (which will undoubtedly be higher than most given her age and level of training) for “activity feeding”. This will assist us in curbing “mental underload” and boredom.
One of your first recommendations regardless of dietary modifications will be a regular game of hide-andseek and/or a food dispensing toy which you’re sure has been given to the owners when they attended puppy classes.
Also important to Odie’s sense of security and stability is that the provision of food resources is reliable. This is why we hear experts recommend regular, timed feeding for pets that are sensitive to environmental change.
Alongside the blatant fact that how we feed affects behaviour runs the more scientific debate as to whether what we feed affects behaviour. Whether you describe the above as social, psychological, emotional or behavioural food associations they don’t answer the question: will a switch from one diet to another in exactly the same environmental conditions inspire canine hyperactivity?
This will always remain a hypothetical question of course because we’re describing Odie’s hyperactivity, and she exists in everchanging environmental conditions.
This is the conundrum. Behavioural measurements are highly subjective and nigh impossible to standardise. When so many confounding factors influence behaviour (age, breed, lifestyle, activity, gender, disease, previous experience…) not to mention the factors which influence nutritional requirements, studies on the intersection between the two are difficult to interpret and frequently contradictory.
- Next month: the conclusion of Odie’s conundrum.
1. Schroll, S. (2010) Food and behavior – Can food have an influence on behavior? Veterinary Focus 20 (1): 2-6.