Creature Companion 2017; January: 36, 38.
Anton C. Beynen
Brain food for puppies
Puppy training is important for successful socialization and owner interaction. Teaching complex
tasks concern future sporting, hunting, police or service dogs. Many new puppy owners turn to
veterinary practices or obedience schools for advice and assistance. These same people may be
taken by foods that claim to support healthy brain and make puppies smarter and more trainable.
Such puppy foods feature omega-3 DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) for strong brain development.
Newborn puppies have only 10 % of their adult brain mass and considerable growth occurs during
the first three months of life. DHA is a key building block for neural tissues and undoubtedly is
important in brain function. Puppy foods for brain health highlight DHA, but nutrition is not the
only source of brain DHA. The brain can produce DHA from ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), EPA
(eicosapentaenoic acid) and DPA (docosapentaenoic acid) or take up blood DHA synthesized in
Dry foods claiming to bring about DHA-mediated improvement of a puppy’s learning ability
contain around 0.14% DHA. The function claim is not convincingly supported by published research
data. DHA was not the only dietary variable or not reported as such. Taken together the testing of
three research groups, increasing dietary DHA, from 0.02% or less to 0.14% or more, was
associated with lack of benefit in 7 out of 13 learning and memory tasks.
Trainability relates to puppy’s ability to understand what the owner or caregiver wants,
willingness to learn and remembering the tasks being taught. Nutrient-deficient diets may disrupt
trainable performance, but for a puppy fed a regular, nutrient-adequate, commercial food, its
intelligence and the method of training determine success.
The dietary amount of DHA needed for growth of young dogs has not been determined
experimentally. This also applies to the other omega-3 fatty acids, ALA and EPA. The adequate
intakes are based on canine milk composition and an arbitrary multiplying factor (1). The
recommended total amount of DHA plus EPA is 0.05% in the dietary dry matter. The minimum
requirement of ALA equals 0.08% at 1.3% linoleic acid (LA).
The high concentrations of DHA in the brain and retinas point at a functional role in these tissues. As
happens with rat pups, omega-3 fatty acid deficiency may cause subnormal growth and impaired
cognitive and visual development in juvenile dogs. In puppies that had been exposed during
gestation, lactation and weaning to a dry diet that approximates omega-3 requirements (ALA-EPA-
DHA-LA = 0.14-0.02-0.02-1.75%), electroretinographic abnormalities were not detected (2).
Extra DHA pre-and post-weaning
Kelley et al. (3-9) have reported on learning ability in puppies born to bitches fed diets containing
different amounts of DHA during gestation and lactation and weaned to the same diets. The diets,
which were presumably dry, contained 0.02, 0.08 or 0.14% DHA (4), but ALA and EPA contents are
not disclosed. It is unknown whether DHA was the only dietary variable and whether cognitive
testing was blinded.
Puppies aged 9 weeks were taught to associate a square or circle with the treat location in a two-
arm maze (3, 6). Then, each symbol was seen 5 times in randomized order per session in a total of 60
sessions. Successful was defined as 8 treat rewards in two consecutive sessions with 10 attempts.
The frequencies of dogs with at least one success criterion were 6/19, 8/19 and 13/20 for the low,
medium or high DHA intakes (3, 8).
Extra DHA post-weaning
Seven-week old puppies received a diet containing 0.02 or 0.13% DHA (9, 10); no further dietary
information is provided. Nine weeks later, the puppies were familiarized with a radial arm maze
consisting of eight equidistantly spaced arms. Invisibly from the central platform, the end of one arm
held a food treat as reward for a correct choice in 10 sessions per puppy. Group mean (n = 12)
memory errors were 6.9 and 4.6 for the low- and high-DHA diet.
From 3 weeks of age, puppies consumed a soaked, commercial diet supplemented, as percentage of
total fat intake, with 3% corn oil or 2% DHA plus 1% arachidonic acid (11, 12). Fatty acid sources are
not given. The diet contained less than 0.02% DHA (13). Nine weeks later, each puppy was tested on
navigating through a rectangular maze to a food reward. Group mean (n = 20) failures in solving the
maze during the second set of 9 sessions were 4.2 and 2.8 for the control and DHA supplement.
Three other cognitive tests were without diet effect (12).
DHA dose response
Until one year of age, weanling puppies (16/dietary group) were fed one of three commercial dry
foods differing in ingredients and supplements, and also in omega-3 fatty acids (14). The contents of
ALA-EPA-DHA-LA were 0.12-<0.01-<0.01-2.6, 0.12-0.13-0.10-2.8 and 0.80-0.31-0.19-3.6, in terms of
percentages of the diets as fed. Clearly, DHA was not the only dietary variable. The profile of the
maternal diet was 0.17-<0.01-0.01-2.1.
Seven visual discrimination learning and memory tests were done in blinded fashion. In three tasks,
puppies fed the diet with 0.19% DHA outperformed their counterparts that consumed less DHA. In
two of these tasks there was no DHA dose response: the diets with <0.01 or 0.10% DHA gave similar
results. Despite substantial ALA supply, puppies fed least DHA had reduced retina function as based
1. National Research Council. Nutrient requirements of dogs and cats. The National Academies Press.
Washington, DC, 2006.
2. Heinemann KM, Waldron MK, Bigley KE, Lees GE, Bauer JE. Long-chain (n-3) polyunsaturated fatty
acids are more efficient than α-linolenic acid in improving electroretinogram responses of puppies
exposed during gestation, lactation and weaning. J Nutr 2005; 135: 1960-1966.
3. Kelly RL, Lepine AJ, Shyan-Norwalt MR, Burr JR, Reinhart GA. Nutrition and DHA. Impact of
maternal and post-weaning nutrition on puppy trainability.
4. Kelley RL. Methods and kits for enhancing ability to learn in a puppy or kitten. United States
Patent US2005/0075399 A1
5. Anonymous. Eukanuba is the only pet food clinically shown to improve puppies’ ability to learn.
Eur J Companion Anim Pract 2005; 15: 15.
6. Kelley R, Lepine A. Improving puppy trainability through nutrition. In: Advances in puppy & kitten
health care. The IAMS Company, Geneva, 2005, pp 28-33.
7. Hoffman L, Kelley R, Waltz D. For smarter, more trainable puppies: Effect of docosahexaenoic acid
on puppy trainability. IAMS Company, 2007 (ADSB #07356100)
8. Kelley R. Linking puppy trainability and nutrient status. Proceedings NAVC Conference 2008; 22:
9. Kelley R, Lepine J. Supplementation with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) improves cognitive
performance in growing puppies. The Veterinarian 2014; Issue 12/April: 10-12.
10. Kelley RL, Lepine AJ. Un supplemento di acido docoesanoico (DHA) nella dieta post-svezzamento
potenzia le capacità d’apprendimento dei cuccioli in crescita. AIVPA Journal 2014; 2: 8-10.
11. Reynolds AJ, Waldron M, Wilsson E, Leavitt Y, Dunlap A, Bailey K. Effect of long-chain
polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation on mental stability, problem solving ability, and learned
pattern retention in young, growing dogs. Proceedings Nestlé Purina Nutrition Forum 2005, p 74.
12. Waldron MK, Reynolds AJ. Methods and composition for improving cognitive function. United
States Patent US2009/0203786 A1
13. Davenport GM, Kelley RL, Altom EK, Lepine AJ. Dietary methods for canine performance
enhancement. United States Patent US2003/0194478 A1
14. Zicker SC, Jewell DE, Yamka RM, Milgram NW. Evaluation of cognitive learning, memory,
psychomotor, immunologic, and retinal functions in healthy puppies fed foods fortified with
docosahexaenoic acid-rich fish oil from 8 to 52 weeks of age. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2012; 241: 583-