Skip to main content

Pet gut health: How nutrition affects your pet’s behavior

March 31, 2023
Pet dog running

If you’ve ever scanned social media, you’ve seen pets do some crazy things! Just like us, each has a unique personality that’s influenced by its “second brain” – the enteric nervous system (ENS) within the walls of the digestive system. While the mechanisms by which the intestinal microbiome and ENS impact behavior are not fully understood, a growing body of evidence is revealing that gut health plays an important role in mental health. Supporting pet brain health is a new frontier, offering surprising health benefits.

Crosstalk between the gut and brain

For decades, it was believed that the brain-gut relationship was unidirectional with the brain affecting the gut but not the other way around. Now we know it's a matter of crosstalk at the neuronal, endocrinal and immunological levels. While the nervous system, including the brain, comprises an intricate network that controls and regulates the body overall, many of this network’s pathways are under the influence of the gut microbiome as well. Since what animals eat has a profound effect on gut microbiota composition and metabolic byproducts, your pet’s diet should be carefully considered from early life through adulthood.

The gut microbiota ecosystem is unique to each individual – human or animal – and is affected by a variety of factors including diet, antibiotic use, gastrointestinal disease, age, genetics and environment. It is primarily composed of bacteria but also includes archaea, viruses and protozoa. Imbalances in gut microbiota, sometimes referred to as dysbiosis, can lead to chronic low-grade inflammation and have been linked not only to gastrointestinal disorders such as leaky gut syndrome but also to neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Improving your pet’s health

Good nutrition, though, can benefit brain health by preventing or reducing the occurrence of dysbiosis. Prebiotics, probiotics, postbiotics and antioxidants, in particular, play roles in protecting pet gut health.

Prebiotics are compounds in food that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria and promote microbial diversity. Recent research has indicated that some prebiotics can boost cognition and positive behavior through the modulation of neuroinflammation.

Probiotics comprise live and/or deactivated bacteria that improve gut health by reducing the population of pathogenic bacteria in the GI tract. They work by competitive exclusion, producing antimicrobial compounds, cultivating beneficial endogenous microorganisms, and/or altering the microbial metabolism.

While there are a variety of probiotic strains, some improve mental health by affecting brain neurotransmitters and proteins, cortisol levels, and serum cytokine levels. These are known as psychobiotics. Many bacteria, such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, have already been shown to improve memory and reduce chronic stress-induced anxiety and depressive behavior in mice.

The breakdown of prebiotics by probiotics forms postbiotics, bioactive compounds that confer health benefits to their host. Recent evidence has supported the use of postbiotics as antidepressive agents, and they may provide additional benefits in animals prone to anxiety or stress disorders.

Antioxidants help to alleviate oxidative stress, which occurs when there’s an imbalance between the production and accumulation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the body’s ability to detoxify these reactive products. When oxidative stress occurs at high levels, it results in biomolecular damage and can potentially lead to intestinal injuries and disorders such as colorectal cancers, enteric infections, and inflammatory bowel diseases.

Recently, it’s been shown that food-derived antioxidant compounds may protect the host from intestinal oxidative stress by modulating the composition of beneficial microbial species in the gut. Since oxidative stress plays a role in causing many disorders, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, antioxidants are incredibly important to overall health. The dietary antioxidant selenium, especially in an organic form such as Sel-Plex® offers, can reduce oxidative stress and balance microbial flora as well, reducing the incidence of dysbiosis. Additionally, organic selenium has been shown to reduce the prevalence of beta amyloid plaques, which are abnormal proteins in the brain. This may assist in preventing age-related neuropathologies associated with cognitive decline.

Supporting pet brain health

Pet owners know that good nutrition, physical activity, and preventive care are key to a healthy and happy life for any animal, and an increasing body of research is demonstrating that body and brain health – both so important to quality of life – are intricately connected as well. The more we learn about this, the better we can make optimal health choices for our animal companions.


I want to learn about pet nutrition.