How exercise and nutrition affect our dogs’ mental health
By Casey Sill
The idea of mental health in dogs is a relatively new phenomenon.
In recent decades, most dogs have gone from the kennel, to the kitchen, to the couch. They’re now ingrained in the fabric of our lives, fully part of the family. And as our relationship with them has changed, so too has the desire to understand their mental health.
Like most things, mental health issues in dogs can be blown out of proportion. It’s important to remember that while they now enjoy many of the same privileges, dogs are not people and their emotional output doesn’t match ours. When your setter looks at you with big droopy eyes and lets out a heavy sigh, it doesn’t mean it’s time for doggie Xanax and a therapist. On the other hand, if he’s eaten three couches and remodeled the legs on your kitchen table in the last week, it’s probably time to consider his mental wellbeing. The good news is, almost all those problems can be solved with exercise and a high quality diet.
Dr. Kurt Venator is Purina’s chief veterinary officer and has been practicing veterinary medicine for 19 years. He said working dogs in particular have very specific needs, and understanding those is important to help maintain their mental health.
“Part of their mental health and well being is in their genes,” he said. “They’ve been bred to do certain, specific tasks and to be physically active. As an owner you want to celebrate that, and allow that dog to act on those genetics. The absence of that stimulation can lead to issues.”
Exercise is the most effective tool for improving mental health in dogs. The more worn out your pup is at the end of the day, the happier and healthier they’ll be.
“Most certainly with field dogs, and even with couch potato dogs, I always say that a tired dog is a good dog,” Venator said. “A lot of behavioral issues you see can be relieved through exercise.”
Most hunting dog handlers, both professional and amateur, accomplish this through regular training sessions. But it’s also important to balance that training with more free flowing exercise.
Dr. Jennell Appel is a Georgia based veterinarian who runs a mobile vet care unit at field trials all across the country. She also trains and trials her own Labrador retrievers, and has developed a conditioning program for her dogs that’s separate from their regimented training.
“People tend to think training is nothing but fun for the dogs, and that’s not necessarily true. They absolutely love it, but there’s also a certain level of stress that goes along with it,” she said. “There’s pressure on them to perform, they have the collar on, they’re being whistled at and corrected, so having a mental release for the dog at least one or two times a week is critical.”
Dr. Appel runs what’s called a “roading” program, where dogs are harnessed to an ATV and run at a slow trot for a certain period of time. New dogs start with 10-minute sessions and gradually increase to about a half an hour. The other portion of the program involves dogs swimming behind a kayak (not harnessed of course) for a certain distance or period of time. These incremental exercises increase a dog’s endurance and physical conditioning, but also help relieve stress.
“We’re giving the dog an outlet mentally, because these exercises are so unlike training,” Appel said. “It’s a mindless activity, like being on a treadmill for a person.”
The other balancing factor in a dog’s mental health is nutrition, which includes both the quantity and quality of food. Just as the case for humans, obesity is a major issue in the dog world. Dr. Venator said overweight dogs live statistically shorter lives than their fit counterparts, and it also impacts their quality of life.
“If you’ve got a sporting dog that wants to go work and train with its owner, but they tear a ligament or develop osteoarthritis because they’re overweight, then that dog simply can’t do what it wants to be doing,” he said. “They’re going to have more pain, they’re going to move more slowly and they’re not going to be living their best life. If they’re still mentally ready to go and work out but can’t, you’re missing a whole component that’s important to who they are as a dog.”
Venator, like all veterinarians, urges clients to feed to a dog’s ideal body weight to avoid these physical and mental issues, but he also advocates for high quality
In recent years, “gut health” has taken center stage in the world of human nutrition, but it’s also gaining ground in the dog world. Gut health refers to the balance of bacteria in the intestines, and Venator said this balance can affect mental health as well as physical.
“We know that you can address brain health through the gut,” he said. “It seems odd, but the gut is talking to the brain, and vise versa. So if you can nutritionally help the gut have the right balance of bacteria through things like probiotics, it can actually influence the brain and behavior.”
Purina has launched a number of products to help this process, including a food additive called Calming Care.
“It’s a special probiotic powder that’s sprinkled on top of your dog’s food for a span of 45 days,” he said. “And the clinical studies have shown it can actually reduce anxiety, so if you have excessive howling, barking or other destructive behavior, it can help with that.”
Mental sharpness and alertness are also important to a dog’s quality of life, especially as a dog ages. From the time you bring home an eight-week-old puppy, every hunter dreads the day when their dog starts to show signs of age. A lot of these signs are mental, and Venator said that can also be addressed through nutrition.
“Some signs of cognitive decline are obvious, when a dog slows down suddenly, but other signs are quite subtle,” he said. “So our researchers and scientists began looking at how we could develop a blend of food to promote alertness and mental sharpness in senior dogs."
Glucose is the primary energy source for a dog’s nerve cells, and Purina’s research indicated that after around the age of seven, dogs become less efficient at metabolizing that glucose. This can be a major factor in cognitive decline and brain function.
The end result of that research was Purina Pro Plan “Bright Mind” formula, a proprietary blend of food that uses brain-supporting nutrients like coconut and palm kernel oil to combat cognitive decline and help aging dogs retain brain function. Bright Mind has been reviewed extensively and scientifically proven to be effective.
“One of my vet techs started feeding her blue heeler Bright Mind after it slowed down at about eight or nine,” said Jeri Welchert, a now retired veterinarian who practiced in eastern Nebraska for over 30 years. “In about a month we saw legitimate improvement in the dog’s cognitive abilities.”
Products like this are part of what has made Purina far and away the most trusted name in the dog food market for generations. The company employs over 500 scientists globally to develop and produce high quality food like Bright Mind and nutritional boosters like Calming Care.
“To be able to scientifically publish and put on our packaging that through diet alone you can promote alertness and mental sharpness in senior dogs, or reduce anxiety in anxious dogs,” Venator said. “In my mind that’s pretty amazing.”
Casey Sill is the public relations specialist at Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever national headquarters in St. Paul, Minn. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.