The Anti-Agression Diet

*I have been meaning to write this post for a while but have been held back by all the sciencey terms that might scare you off. I did my best to make it digestible, so stick with me! So, finally, I want to dig into this idea of an anti-aggression diet.

Anti-Aggression Diet

For many dog owners, the idea of their dog ever being aggressive is laughable. They have what amounts to a living teddy bear that loves to chase sticks and go on long walks. That idyllic picture isn’t always the case for the rest of us. Aggression is a very real hurdle for some dog owners. For some owners, aggression comes out at the sight of the mailman or any other strange passersby. For others, resources guarding brings it out. Whatever the reason for your dog’s aggression, there *could* (more on this hesitation later) be a diet solution that you should talk to your vet about adding to your desensitization therapy.

Every dog has a threshold for aggression. When that threshold is met or surpassed is when they act on it. For the teddy bear dogs, that threshold is quite high and unlikely to ever be met. For other dogs, including my own, that threshold isn’t so high, especially in particular situations. While those thresholds and situations may vary widely from dog to dog, there have been studies that show a particular commonality – low amounts of serotonin.

Serotonin is an important Aggression Threshold neurotransmitter (a compound that sends signals from nerve to nerve) that for the purposes of this article can affect mood
and social behavior (among other things).
The link between low levels of serotonin and aggression implies that serotonin can have a major part in regulating a dog’s threshold for aggression. So how can we ensure a healthy amount of serotonin in our pets?

The answer is kinda tryptophan. I say kinda because it isn’t as easy as just feeding your animal a bunch of turkey and hoping they stop lunging at the mailman. Here’s why:

Tryptophan is an amino acid, the things that make up proteins. It’s commonly found in poultry and other meats and is a precursor, or building block, of serotonin. Our bodies can’t produce it so we have to get it from our diets, but like I said, it isn’t enough to just feed our pets a bunch of turkey.

The current trend in pet food is a focus on high amounts of quality Today's Dog Food Nutritionproteins while limiting carbs from grains. This focus can actually make it so that our pets are getting less tryptophan to make into serotonin. This is because the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin relies on enough tryptophan getting through the blood-brain barrier. When there are a bunch of other amino acids competing to get across, tryptophan is often the one left behind. Today’s diets also focus on being low carb, but carbohydrates help tryptophan cross the blood-brain barrier in larger amounts.

An anti-aggression diet or serotonin boosting diet is one that focuses on being high carb and low protein. Not so much low as focused, rather. There is a prescription diet by Royal Canin (they aren’t paying me to tell you about this, but they should!) called CALM that uses this idea. One study showed reduced stress responses in dogs and cats during nail trims.

Could this diet work for your pet? It depends. The research I’m referencing seems to point to this kind of diet only working for dogs and cats that are territorially aggressive, but the study done on the CALM diet seems to show that this diet can help to reduce the overall stress response, where serotonin is not directly related.
Calm dog

If your pet struggles with aggression issues and they’re only getting so far with desensitization training, talk to your vet about possibly shifting their diet. Don’t try to take their diet into your own hands! Your vet will either prescribe the CALM diet or one like it or will give you a well-balanced recipe. It’s important that you keep up or start desensitization training to help them raise their aggression threshold. This is still the best way to overcome aggression issues. As always, be patient and good luck!

There. That wasn’t so bad, right?

27 Comments

  1. I am a Canine Behaviorist from India your post is definitely and worth exploring to see if a particular diet can help reduce aggression in dogs apart from the behavior modification positive reinforcement training techniques

  2. Fascinating! This diet makeup will likely be counter-intuitive to many folks who are so used to hearing key words like “grain free.” I’ll be interested to see what additional research finds in relation to this subject and hope that there will be an option for folks to use soon.

    • Amber

      Yeah! I’m hoping for more quality brands to recognize this research and put out competitive foods. Hopefully OTC versions! I’m not sure why this needs to be a prescription diet. As long as owners consult their vets about it, I feel like it should be fine.

  3. Good to know! My pups aren’t aggressive but I do have an anxious one. Maybe this would help him as well! Diets are amazing and changing them helps people, so why not pets?! Great read!

  4. This is an inneresting post. Every day TW passes a porch with a little rat terrier on it. Every day that rat terrier charges to the front of the front snarling at her. Usually dogs love her. Should I tell her to carry some turkey breast for that dog?

  5. I firmly believe that diet can modify behavior in pets just like in humans. And that there is a bio-individuality for different people/pets. I know I’m affected by carbs bit time. It changes my mood and makes me irritable.

    • Amber

      I just kicked gluten and have been feeling so much better! I’ve always eaten whole grains and thought I was eating a healthy diet! Who knew!

    • Amber

      My doctor just recommend that I kick gluten, so of course, I’ve been researching it a bunch and wow! There is so much I didn’t know about how it and other things in my diet have been holding me back. That got me interested in looking up diet-related behavior problems in our pets. I’m glad you found it interesting!

  6. This is very interesting and it never occurred to me that a dog’s diet could affect their behavior. Which is weird since I’m a horse girl and that is so obvious to us horse folk. With horses–diet has a HUGE impact on behavior and performance. That’s how the term “feeling your oats” came into being (grains cause some horses to be more hot/high-strung). I’m going to forward this along to a friend who just rescued a cattle dog and he gets aggressive on walks.

    Thanks for diving through the sciencey terms. (I’m also not a science person!)

    • Amber

      That is so interesting about the horses! I’m so curious about the relationship between the grains and hotheadedness! One more thing to add to my research list! Science is totally my thing, I’m a total nerd. Thankfully, my husband (a writer) pulls back on the reins so I don’t get in the weeds lol! Thanks so much for the insight!

  7. Great post! I do so believe in the power of diet and nutrition. While I do not personally have aggression issues with my Siberian Huskies, I know that with having had an epi-dog (canine epileptic), diet, nutrition, and supplements were key in his diet to help manage triggers and combat side effects of his anti-seizure meds. Diet can work wonders, for sure. Pinning your post!

  8. Well this was quite fascinating, thank you!! Definitely new concept to me. I’m glad RC has made a good to address this, they are so innovative! Great post.
    Love & biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  9. Kilo the pug has a very low threshold in most circumstances. We have been trying the desensitization and behavioral therapy. He has improved a lot and is an adorable love bug with us most of the time. We now know his triggers and can predict his behavior but it is slow sledding – he thrives on the adrenalin buzz defending us from the mailman or the big black dog next door or any stranger etc. and he still guards certain treasures or food. I have found that exercising him and letting him eat a mix of carbs and good quality protein kibble often through the day (several short walks and bursts of play or training and small amounts of food) and having lots of toys and bully sticks to chew helps. He may be 1lb heavier than when we rescued him 2 years ago now but he seems very healthy – he loves food and playing so it relaxes him and he feels good. Maybe food like Calm would help more. I wanted to try him on medication when we first rescued him but the vet refused so we just try natural ways to raise serotonin levels and thresholds.

    • Amber

      Sounds like you’ve made a lot of progress with Kilo! I have a similarly triggerable dog, but we’ve worked out most of it. One of my first articles was about why dogs hate the mailman, I hope you enjoy it! I recently heard that you can build a dog up only so far before hitting a plateau, so don’t stress too much. We were able to break Gremlin’s plateau when we brought home our baby, but another dog would probably have worked too. Prozac (fluoxetine) would help you with your desensitization therapy. I can’t imagine why your vet would have refused the prescription. I’d love to hear more about Kilo’s progress in the future!

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