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Metabolic Research Associates Abnormalities with Hyperactivity in Dogs
Three organizations in Finland team up to understand root causes of dog behavioral issues.

A research group from the University of Helsinki and the Folkhälsan Research Centre recently teamed up with the LC-MS Metabolomics Centre of Biocentre Kuopio to study the blood count of hyperactive and impulsive dogs--another successful collaboration between canine and human scientists. The three organizations decided to embark on this study to understand the most common behavioral problems in dogs--fearfulness, sensitivity to noise, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness. Since these issues can have a negative impact on the wellbeing of both canines and humans, the scientists wanted to uncover root causes. Part of their work is also helping to test a new metabolomics technology which could speed up future genetic research, particularly as it relates to behavioral research.

"Behavior and behavioral disorders often develop as a combination of hereditary and environmental factors, which makes studying them challenging," explains lead scientist Hannes Lohi. "Metabolomics, or the study of the metabolism, provides us with new clues on the biological issues underpinning behavioral disorders while promoting genetic research. At the moment, metabolomics research in dogs is rare, and the purpose of this pilot study was to examine new approaches and attain information on any metabolic abnormalities associated with hyperactivity in dogs."

Looking at blood metabolites showed a significant link between hyperactivity and lower blood phospholipid levels. It wasn't surprising because several studies in humans have shown lower blood lipid and fatty acid levels in ADHD patients. This also tied in with their earlier research that showed blood count differences between fearful and fearless pups.

Another interesting finding was the negative correlation between hyperactive behavior and the levels of metabolites of tryptophan, an amino acid that's produced in the gut when intestinal bacteria processes food. This difference in the gut bacteria of hyperactive and normally behaved dogs supports previous research in humans that found a connection between the intestines and the creation of neurotransmitters that regulate mood and behavior in the brain. It was also found to work in the opposite way. A stress reaction in the brain can have an adverse effect on the gut microbiota.

However, the causal relationship for these findings isn't clear, so more research is needed. The hope is that this work could eventually better our understanding of these behavioral issues in both dogs and people.

Anyone who has worked with an extremely fearful dog knows how painful and frustrating it can be to both the animal and the people who love them. So I'm excited to see research that might help improve the lives of those affected. However, I hope that people won't think these biological findings mean they should give up on a solid training plan. While the cause of these fearful or hyperactive behaviors may be somewhat innate, we can still help dogs cope and even thrive with training. No doubt it takes a lot of dedication and patience, but I hope that this research will only help us make gains with these affected pups. 

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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