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Can too much protein in dog food cause hyperactivity?

Find food that fits your pet’s needs

High protein dog food sounds like a good thing. After all, dogs are primarily meat eaters … Arent they? This claim is often made, but if you know dogs, you know that if left to their own devices theyll go for whatever edible thing is easiest to get to, be it meat, vegetables, potato chips, or the contents of your cats litter box. Observing your dogs unsupervised eating habits isnt exactly the best way to tell whats good for him. Read on to learn how much and what kind of protein for dogs is best.

Black dog eating food from a bowl on the floorIts often thought that dogs are exclusive meat eaters that require high protein dog food. This belief stems partly from the fact that dogs are related to wolves, which are indeed carnivores, and from the fact that dogs belong to the scientific order Carnivora, which includes wolves and other meat-eating species. Despite its name, this order also includes herbivores and omnivores, such as bears, raccoons, and giant pandas, says Tufts Universitys Cummings Veterinary Medical Center. The truth is that dogs have evolved a number of differences from wolves over the millennia. One of those differences, according to a study published in Nature, is that the genome of dogs has evolved to not only enable them to digest plant-based starches, but to thrive on foods that include a wide variety of ingredients including fruits, vegetables, herbs, grains, meats, poultry, fish and more, making them true omnivores.

Can I Feed My Dog Too Much Protein?

We’ve previously talked about protein in commercial pet foods and home-cooked diets. Typically, our focus is meeting your pet’s biological needs. However, you may have heard friends, dog trainers, or even veterinarians talking about feeding a low protein diet to treat behavior issues. But what does a low-protein diet really mean, and how do these testimonials compare to the science?

Unfortunately using terms like low or high can be rather confusing in pet nutrition. Healthy adult dogs (over one year of age) need a minimum of 4.5 grams of protein for every 100 calories they consume (Unsure how this compares to the percentages on the back of a pet food label? You can convert the numbers by using the calculator here. Beyond this minimum requirement, there is no legal definition or even a general consensus of what exactly a ‘low’ or ‘high’ protein diet actually is. Each trainer, veterinarian, or nutritionist might have different ranges for what they consider in each category. In research or in recommendations, it’s important to clarify the actual amount of protein recommended and compare that to the minimum amount a pet needs and the current amount consumed by the pet.

So long as diets are nutritionally complete and balanced for your pet (are above the minimum 4.5 grams protein per 100 calories and meet all the other nutrient requirements) and include an appropriate AAFCO statement, they are formulated to be balanced for healthy pets. There is also no maximum or safe upper limit for protein, but some pets may have limitations on the protein they can safely consume due to medical conditions. You should always consult your veterinarian about diet changes, especially if your pet is growing, pregnant, lactating, or has any medical conditions.

Although certain amino acids from food have been found to alter the synthesis of neurotransmitters (chemical ‘signals’) in the brain, neurotransmitter release and behavior can also be influenced through training or changes in routine. A couple of studies have been done specifically on the relationship between protein and “problem” behaviors with conflicting results. For example, one study of a lower protein diet found that the behavior of dogs with owner-directed aggression (described as ‘dominance aggression in the study) and hyperactivity were unchanged, but that territorial aggression appeared reduced. Conversely, another study found that owner-directed aggression was the only behavior that seemed affected when dogs were fed a lower protein diet. There were some design problems with both studies – when the two diets that were tested were compared more carefully, the two diets tested were actually very similar in protein content and the two groups of dogs had similar overall protein intake, so it’s uncertain whether the changes seen were really due to variations in dietary protein versus other factors.

More research is needed to fully understand the potential behavioral impacts of various protein content in diets (and not just the total protein content but also the composition of the individual amino acids). Given the limited number of studies currently available, potential benefits of such diets are not strongly supported. However, as long as the diet chosen is good quality and is complete and balanced for your pet, it may be appropriate to see if it improves your pet’s behavior (talk with your veterinarian first!). Overall, the best way to ensure healthy behavior for your dog is working with the right experts. Healthy dogs in need of training (e.g., pulling on leashes, jumping up on visitors to lick faces, etc.) should be seen by qualified force-free trainers. Dogs with abnormal behaviors (e.g., aggression, or normal behaviors that are displayed excessively or out of context) should be seen by a Board-Certified Veterinary Behaviorist. It’s also helpful to speak with your veterinarian as well, since many medical issues can look like behavioral issues so you’ll want to have your veterinarian examine your pet for pain or illness that may be making them act out of the ordinary.

DeNapoli, J.S., Dodman, N.H., Shuster, L., Rand, W.M., Gross, K.L., 2000. Effect of dietary protein content and tryptophan supplementation on dominance aggression, territorial aggression, and hyperactivity in dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 217, 504–508.

Dodman, N.H., Reisner, I., Shuster, L., Rand, W., Luescher, U.A., Robinson, I., Houpt, K.A., 1996. Effect of dietary protein content on behavior in dogs. J. Am. Vet. Med. Assoc. 208, 376–379.