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Your Pet’s Behavioral Issues Might Be All in Their Gut

It’s a gut thing: Your dog’s GI issues could be linked to their mental health.

by Kate Sheofsky
September 6, 2022
Dog in high contrast lit hallway standing near a food bowl
Eldad Carin / Stocksy

Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)

When it comes to life decisions, you listen to your gut a lot. Maybe even deciding to adopt your pet was a gut decision — heavily influenced by cuteness. When it comes to our physical guts, though, there are all sorts of vitamins and supplements claiming to set things right and make you feel better.

Although our pets’ noses tell them more about the world than their guts might, they need some TLC in that area, too. If you’ve got a dog or cat that acts anxious or lashes out, you’ve probably tried everything from environmental changes to behavior modification to medication. But one thing you may not have considered is a deep dive into your pet’s gut microbiome

Not sure how gut health connects to one’s emotional response? It has to do with the gut-brain axis, which is how the digestive tract communicates back and forth with the central nervous system. If you’ve ever felt butterflies in your stomach when you’re worried, you’ve experienced the gut-brain axis in action.

Researchers studying the connection between gut health and mental disorders in humans have found evidence suggesting that regulating gut bacteria could help alleviate anxiety symptoms. And it turns out the same could be true for our furry friends. 

The Gut’s Role in Mental Health

Serotonin and dopamine are examples of “feel good” chemicals used by the brain to affect mood and decision-making. Bacteria in the gut produces the bulk of these chemicals. Other bacteria in the gut may produce chemicals that promote anxiety or mood disorders. So, it makes sense that regulating gut bacteria could impact mood or behavior. Studies have found differences in the microbiomes of anxious mice and aggressive dogs that could prove helpful for developing treatments and therapies. 

Steps Pet Parents Can Take

Talk to Your Vet

The thought that a healthy gut could alleviate your pet’s symptoms of anxiety or aggression may have you gleefully reaching for a container of probiotic-packed yogurt. But before you do, it’s best to chat with your veterinarian. A healthy gut is vital for many reasons, including breaking down food, absorbing nutrients, and maintaining a healthy immune system.

According to veterinarian Dr. Jessica Heckman, Ph.D., “an unhealthy gut often makes itself known through soft stools or even diarrhea. These are the most common veterinary indications that a dog might benefit from probiotics.” There are also tests available that can analyze the bacteria in your pet’s gut. 

Consider What You Feed Your Pet

The food you give your pet can impact their gut health. Heavily processed foods and the use of antibiotics in the ingredients mean pet foods can harm the microbiome. Human-grade and fresh foods may be worth considering if your pet shows any signs of digestive issues.

Explore Supplements

There are some probiotic products for dogs that specifically claim to promote calm behavior and alleviate anxiety. Other probiotic supplements geared toward general digestive health are available for dogs or cats. However, how well they work for reducing anxiety or aggression is an area that needs further research. Still, they may be a good option to consider if your pet is experiencing issues or as a preventive measure.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about probiotics,” says Dr. Hekman. “Some pet owners do include them proactively; others don’t. But since they are very safe, there is no harm in doing so. Just be sure to always let your veterinarian know about any supplements you are giving your pet.”

Consult with a Veterinary Behaviorist

Treating anxiety or aggression in pets can be difficult and time-consuming. And it often requires a combination of therapies to address the root cause and change behaviors. Managing gut health may be one of the areas you and your pet’s healthcare team can explore. Dr. Hekman agrees. “With a serious behavioral issue, I recommend working with a veterinary behaviorist (rather than a non-veterinary behavior consultant) to discuss treatment. It’s very worthwhile to discuss probiotics and the possibility of a microbiome issue with a behaviorist.”

No matter what you decide, it’s always best to go with your...gut.

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Kate Sheofsky

Kate Sheofsky hails from San Francisco, where she developed a love of writing, Giants baseball, and houses she can’t afford. She currently lives in Portland, OR, and works as a freelance writer and content strategist. When not typing away on her laptop, she enjoys tooling around the city with her two rescue pups searching for tasty food and sunny patios.