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Food for your dog’s cognitive health

Food for your dog’s cognitive health

Cecilie Hemsen Berg

Physical stimuli through playtime and training will benefit your dog’s mental health. It is equally important to provide your dog with a healthy diet to support cognitive health from puppy to senior. Nutrients like antioxidants, protein, probiotics and Omega 3 play an important role in brain development as well as cognitive health and should be a part of your dog’s daily diet. 

Always read the ingredients list on the food you are feeding your dog, and make sure it provides all the nutrients needed for a healthy brain. In addition, feed your dog an age-appropriate diet, as different life stages call for different nutritional needs for the brain as well. 

Antioxidants for brain health 

Antioxidants can play a vital role in keeping our dog’s brain healthy. Vitamins B, C, and E, as well as zinc, selenium, choline, beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein, are important for cognitive health. These vitamins, antioxidants and minerals help to protect the brain from free radical damage and support normal functioning. Foods like blueberries, rooibos tea and carrots provide your dog with antioxidants. If you wish, you can add some mushed blueberries to your dog’s kibble a few times a week for an antioxidant boost.

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DHA omega 3 and cognitive health

DHA omega 3 is an essential fatty acid that is particularly important during early development.  Puppies acquire 70 per cent of their adult brain mass by 6 weeks of age and 90 per cent by 12 weeks. Puppies are limited in the amount of DHA they can produce themselves, so they must obtain it from their mother (prenatally and when nursing) and from food, once they are eating on their own. 

In commercial dog foods, sources of DHA include marine algae, sea lettuce, fish, and fish oil. The body can also make DHA from plant oils like canola oil, coconut oil and flaxseed oil. ALA in plant oils will be converted into DHA in the body. Coconut oil is a rich source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which have been shown to improve brain energy metabolism and decrease brain lesions in older pets.

If your dog is pregnant, make sure she eats a diet rich in DHA. She can eat commercial puppy foods, which usually contain appropriate levels of DHA. 

Protein and your dog’s temperament

Protein and its building blocks, amino acids, are essential for our dogs, both for their physical- and mental health. Amino acids such as tryptophan, tyrosine, histidine, and arginine help produce neurotransmitters that are important for cognitive health and mood. Hyperactivity, territorial behaviour, dominance and aggression may be lower in dogs who eat high-quality protein providing sufficient amounts of tryptophan. Protein is found in edible insects, meat, fish, egg, and pulses like lentils, chickpeas and peas. The amino acids tryptophan and L-Carnitine can also be beneficial, so look for food that has added these to their recipe.

Complex carbohydrates 

Sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach and other leafy greens, blueberries, blackberries and some healthy grains like oats, millet, sorghum and barley are great sources of beneficial carbohydrates and antioxidants. Carbohydrates (glucose) are the brain’s preferred source of energy and provide an excellent slow-release source of “power” for our dogs. It can improve calmness due to maintaining a feeling of fullness after meals. Fibre can lower hunger-related stress resulting in a calmer, less anxious dog. 

Dogs can also get “hangry”. Intense exercise or prolonged physical activity can rapidly deplete glycogen stores and cause so-called exercise-induced hypoglycemia. This is especially common in sled dogs, hunting dogs and other highly active dogs.

Reactive hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in dogs is quite common and can cause lethargy, irritability and anxiousness. Some complex carbs 30 min after high-intensity training can stabilise the blood sugar level. Sometimes one can use “diet manipulation” as a tool to change an unwanted behaviour, focusing on tryptophan, B6, complex carbohydrates, protein levels, antioxidants etc. 

As your dog ages, the metabolism of glucose will be less efficient, leaving a gap in the brain’s energy requirement.

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Probiotics, gut health and mental health

The gut-brain axis describes the communication between the gut and the brain. This happens via the vagus nerve and signal molecules produced by bacteria in the gut (communications between the central and enteric nervous systems). A good environment in the gut can assist with brain biochemistry and behaviour. Some probiotics have even been shown to improve symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. The gut microbiome produces neurotransmitters like:

  • Serotonin: contributes to feelings of happiness and well being
  • GABA: helps control feelings of fear and anxiety
  • Glutamate: plays a major role in learning and memory 
  • Dopamine: involved in the feeling of pleasure, satisfaction and motivation

Butyrate and gut microbes are important for forming the barrier between the brain and the blood (blood-brain barrier). Production of butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid, occurs when the gut microbes digest fibre. They also produce propionate and acetate, which play a role in appetite control. 

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Brain food for different life stages 


This life stage calls for a diet that supports active learning. A dog’s brain is usually fully formed by the age of 2 years, and optimal nutrition both during pregnancy, through mothers milk and a complete, healthy diet formulated especially for puppies will support brain health.

Adult dogs

Dogs (like humans) have a blood-brain barrier that surrounds the brain, allowing the right nutrients from the bloodstream to enter the brain’s cells. It also protects the brain from harmful bacteria, viruses etc. 

Feeding your dog with high-quality food formulated for adult dogs according to their size (small, medium or large) will ensure the correct amount of protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals to support brain health.

Senior dogs

As our dog ages, the blood-brain barrier becomes more permeable, allowing some potentially harmful particles access to the brain, contributing to cognitive decline. Your dog might seem forgetful or disorientated, and experience separation anxiety. He/she might wake up at night, start to have accidents inside, be more restless and bark without a cause. These can be signs of cognitive dysfunction syndrome, or CDS. The progression is gradual, and early symptoms can also be linked to impaired hearing and/or eyesight. Your vet will be able to determine if the problems are actually caused by CDS.

If your dog is diagnosed with CDS, there are prescription medications available to manage the disease. You can also help slow down the progression by keeping your dog’s brain fit by mental training and providing him/her with age-appropriate food (Senior food). Mental stimulation through playing games is also important. 

Feeding your dog a diet that has a balanced amount of these essential nutrients can help to ensure that they maintain cognitive health and remain alert as they age. Read more about how to care for your ageing dog.

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Providing your dog with a balanced diet that includes high-quality protein, healthy fat and complex carbohydrates and avoiding artificial taste, colour, antibiotics, growth hormones, preservatives, pesticides etc will support brain health. Dogs are omnivores, and we need to fulfil their nutritional needs. 

Consult with your vet before supplementing your dog’s diet. Especially with fat-soluble vitamins. Balance is the key. Read the ingredient list on the dog food to make sure you know all the different ingredients. Food/ingredients that may benefit brain health:

  • High-quality, clean and complete protein provides important amino acids needed to produce neurotransmitters.
  • Vegetables, fruits and berries in addition to gluten-free grains like oats, millet, sorghum, and barley provide antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre and energy. Glucose is the main energy source for the brain. Dogs should not eat sugar, which you can find in some commercial dog food.
  • Choline is needed to produce acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter for among other things memory, mood and muscular control. Food containing choline is meat, eggs, broccoli, cauliflower, and dairy products among others. Choline is often grouped with vit B complex.
  • Balanced omega-3, preferably from marine algae. Also found in fatty fish and fish oils.
  • L-Carnitine may help prevent age-related mental decline and improve memory. 
  • Tryptophan may reduce anxiety and aggression and can be beneficial for dogs with separation anxiety. 
  • Prebiotics/fibre, probiotics and fermented food will support a well-functioning microflora in the gut which may benefit the gut-brain axis.

We at Nala Health have formulated our food with a focus on dog’s overall health and well-being through all life stages. We offer puppy food, food for small adults, medium to large adults and senior dogs.

For cognitive health, we have added a balanced source of omega 3 and 6, antioxidants, L-Carnitine and Choline. We have also added beneficial fibre and probiotics supporting the gut microbiome, which is important for the gut-brain axis. Our food contains all the vitamins and minerals needed, including B9 (folic acid) which is important for the nervous system (important during pregnancy too, as it might prevent birth defects of the brain and spine).