A dog living with diabetes is not much different than you or I.
They love to play, spend time with family, and eat. The biggest difference is that they need their blood sugar levels monitored.
Our dogs get the same diseases that we do and are prone to the same illnesses that we are.
The way we care for them is similar as well, the most common being heart disease, which is the number one killer of dogs.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic (long-lasting) health condition that affects how your body turns food into energy.
Most of the food you eat is broken down into sugar (also called glucose) and released into your bloodstream. When your blood sugar goes up, it signals your pancreas to release insulin.
Insulin acts like a key to let the blood sugar into your body’s cells for use as energy.
If you have diabetes, your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or can’t use the insulin it makes as well as it should.
When there isn’t enough insulin or cells stop responding to insulin, too much blood sugar stays in your bloodstream.
Over time, that can cause serious health problems, such as heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease.
There isn’t a cure yet for diabetes, but losing weight, eating healthy food, and being active can really help.
Taking medicine as needed, getting diabetes self-management education and support, and keeping health care appointments can also reduce the impact of diabetes on your life.
What is diabetes in dogs?
Dog diabetes, or ‘canine diabetes’, is caused by either a lack of insulin in your dog’s body or, in some cases, an ‘inadequate’ biological response to it.
When your dog eats, the food is broken down. One of the components of their food, glucose, is carried to their cells by insulin.
If your dog can’t produce enough insulin themselves, or the insulin they have isn’t used properly, the glucose cannot be used properly either. This means your dog’s blood sugar levels will rise, which can lead to adverse side effects.
Kinds of Dog Diabetes
Humans are subject to essentially three kinds of diabetes. By far the most common is Type 2, followed by Type 1 and gestational diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes has typically been a disease of middle and old age (though it is being seen increasingly in young people) and has two causes: The beta cells don’t make enough insulin, or muscle cells resist insulin’s help and don’t take in enough glucose (or both). As a result, blood glucose levels climb.
Type 1 diabetes usually occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys the beta cells, cutting off insulin production; the reason for this attack is thought to be a combination of genetic predisposition plus exposure to a trigger (research into possible triggers is ongoing). Glucose then stays in the blood and, again, levels skyrocket. Roughly half of the people who have Type 1 diabetes develop it by age 20. Gestational diabetes starts during pregnancy and is probably caused by hormonal changes.
You may have heard that dogs generally get Type 1 diabetes, but the reality is more complicated. Though there are no universally accepted definitions of dog diabetes, the United Kingdom’s Royal Veterinary College identifies two forms: insulin-deficiency diabetes (IDD) and insulin-resistance diabetes (IRD). Neither matches any kind of human diabetes exactly.
Different causes Dogs Diabetes
Just like in humans, it isn’t completely certain why some dogs develop diabetes. Some dogs may be more genetically prone to developing the condition.
It is known, however, that being overweight can increase the risk of your dog developing diabetes. This may be because obesity causes cells in your dog’s body to become more resistant to insulin.
If your dog develops diabetes, it is most likely to happen when they start to reach their senior years. Female dogs and neutered dogs may also be more at risk.
Different symptoms of Dogs Diabetes
There are many symptoms of diabetes in dogs. If you notice any of the following, ask your vet for advice, as they could indicate the condition:
- Excessive thirst
- Increase in urination
- Unexplained weight loss
- Appetite changes
- ‘Sweet-smelling’ breath
- Tiredness or lack of energy
- Urinary tract infection
- Loss of eyesight
If your vet suspects that your dog may have diabetes, they will most likely carry out a blood test to help with their diagnosis. If your dog has diabetes, they will be able to advise you on the best course of action.
Damage caused by diabetes
Whatever the type of diabetes, the negative effects on the body are the same.
Excessive sugar builds up in the dog’s bloodstream, and yet the body’s cells that need that sugar can’t access it.
So the “bad” effects that diabetes causes in the dog’s body are twofold:
• Cells are starved for vital “fuel.” Muscle cells and certain organ cells are deprived of the glucose “fuel” they need for energy. In response, the body starts breaking down its own fats and proteins to use as an alternative fuel.
• High sugar level in the bloodstream damages many organs. Without insulin to help convert the glucose in the bloodstream into fuel, high levels of glucose build up in the blood. Unfortunately, this abnormal blood chemistry acts as a sort of poison and eventually causes multi-organ damage. This often includes damage to the kidneys, eyes, heart, blood vessels, or nerves.
What pets are at risk?
Diabetes in dogs and cats can occur at any age. However, diabetic dogs are usually 4-14 years of age and most are diagnosed at roughly 7-10 years of age.
Most diabetic cats are older than 6 years of age. Diabetes occurs in female dogs twice as often as male dogs. Certain breeds of dogs may be predisposed to diabetes.
Obesity is a significant risk factor for the development of diabetes. As dogs and cats age, they may also develop other diseases that can result in diabetes or could significantly affect their response to treatment for diabetes, including overactivity of the adrenal gland in dogs (hyperadrenocorticism) or overactivity of the thyroid gland in cats (hyperthyroidism), pancreatitis, heart disease, kidney disease, urinary tract infections, and skin infections.
The long-term use of medications containing corticosteroids is also a risk factor for diabetes.
Dog Diabetes - diagnostic and Treatment
Diabetes may be suspected based on the signs a pet is showing, but the diagnosis is confirmed by your veterinarian by finding consistent hyperglycemia and glucosuria. Although a diagnosis of diabetes is often relatively straightforward, your veterinarian may run additional blood tests to rule out other medical conditions seen in older pets. A urine culture might be recommended to rule out a urinary tract infection.
Once the diagnosis is confirmed, your veterinarian will prescribe an initial dose and type of insulin for your pet. Insulin cannot be given orally – it must be given by injection under the skin.
Your veterinarian or veterinary technician will teach you how to give insulin injections, which involve a very small needle and are generally very well tolerated by the pet.
It is not a one-size-fits-all treatment, your veterinarian may periodically need to adjust your pet’s treatment regimen based on the results of monitoring. Dietary recommendations are an important part of treatment.
Successful treatment of diabetes requires regular examinations, blood and urine tests, and monitoring of your pet’s weight, appetite, drinking, and urination.
Caring for diabetic pets
Dogs and cats with diabetes usually require lifelong treatment with special diets, a good fitness regimen, and, particularly in dogs, daily insulin injections.
The key to managing diabetic pets is to keep your pet’s blood sugar near normal levels and avoid too-high or too-low levels that can be life-threatening.
A treatment that works for one pet might not work as well for another pet, and patience is important as you and your pet adjust to the new diet and medications.
Management of your diabetic pet may include some or all of the following:
- A high-fiber diet is often recommended.
- Daily exercise is strongly recommended. Consult your veterinarian about an appropriate exercise program for your pet, considering factors such as weight, overall health, and age.
- Owners should consider spaying female dogs diagnosed with diabetes.
- A high-protein, low carbohydrate diet is often recommended.
- Daily exercise is strongly recommended, although it can be challenging to practice a daily fitness regimen with cats. Your veterinarian may be able to help you develop a plan.
It is very important to maintain the proper insulin and feeding schedules recommended for your pet. It is also very important that your pet maintains a normal appetite while on insulin therapy, or you risk hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) if your pet is not eating and absorbing enough sugars to balance the insulin’s effect of removing the sugars from the bloodstream.
You will also need to regularly check your pet’s blood and urine sugar levels. Regular examinations and testing performed by your veterinarian may be supplemented by at-home monitoring of your pet’s blood and urine glucose levels at home.
Watch for the signs of an insulin overdose, which can include weakness, tremors or seizures, and loss of appetite. Contact your veterinarian or an emergency clinic immediately if you observe any of these signs, and consult your veterinarian about what you should do in the meantime to help your pet until it can be examined by a veterinarian. Assigns of an insulin overdose can sometimes be very similar to signs of an insulin underdose, it is important that changes in dosage and frequency of insulin injections only be made by a veterinarian.
Because older dogs and cats are more likely to develop age-related diseases or conditions, some of which could be confused with diabetes, regular examinations by a veterinarian can keep your pet healthy and detect problems before they become severe.
If you have any questions about your pet’s health or management, contact your veterinarian.
In addition, diabetic pets should be monitored for long-term complications such as cataracts, which commonly develop in diabetic dogs and cats.
Other problems that can occur include hind leg weakness due to low blood potassium (hypokalemia), high blood pressure (hypertension), or lower urinary tract infections.
Diabetic dogs and cats can live long and healthy lives with proper management and veterinary care. If you notice any changes in your pet’s behavior or weight, consult your veterinarian.
What Can Make a Dog at Risk for Diabetes?
- Age. While diabetes can occur at any age, it mostly occurs in middle-aged to senior dogs. Most dogs who develop it are age 5 or older when diagnosed.
- Gender. Unspayed female dogs are twice as likely as male dogs to have diabetes.
- Chronic or repeated pancreatitis. Chronic or repeated pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can eventually cause extensive damage to that organ, resulting in diabetes.
- Obesity. Obesity contributes to insulin resistance and is a risk factor for pancreatitis, which can lead to diabetes.
- Steroid medications. These can cause diabetes when used long-term.
- Cushing’s disease. With Cushing’s disease, the body overproduces steroids internally, so this condition also can cause diabetes.
- Other health conditions. Some autoimmune disorders and viral diseases are also thought to possibly trigger diabetes.
- Genetics. Diabetes can occur in any breed or mixed-breed, and it seems genetics can play a role in either increased or reduced risk. A 2003 study found that overall, mixed-breeds are no less prone to diabetes than are purebreds. Among purebreds, breeds vary in susceptibility, some with very low risk and others with higher risk. Some that may be at higher risk include miniature Poodles, Bichons Frises, Pugs, Dachshunds, Miniature Schnauzers, Puli, Samoyeds, Keeshonds, Australian Terriers, Fox Terriers, Cairn Terriers, and Beagles.
Treatment of Diabetes in Dogs
- Diet. Your veterinarian will recommend the best type of diet for your diabetic dog. Usually, this will include some good-quality protein, as well as fiber and complex carbohydrates that will help to slow the absorption of glucose. Your vet may also recommend a diet with relatively low-fat content.
- Exercise. To help avoid sudden spikes or drops in glucose levels, diabetic dogs must maintain a moderate but consistent exercise routine.
- Injections. Most diabetic dogs will require daily shots of insulin under the skin, something that the owner will have to learn to do. Although it’s understandable to be apprehensive about doing this, it’s not as hard as it might sound. It can become a quick and easy daily routine that isn’t traumatic at all for either dog or owner.
Strategies to Manage Diabetes in Dogs
Although administering your dog’s insulin based on your veterinarian’s instructions will be, first and foremost, the method of treatment there are additional strategies you can imply to manage your dog’s diabetes and ensure he’s in the best shape to live a long and full life.
Here are some ways you can manage diabetes in dogs:
- Feed your dog a good diet. Researchers are still exploring what is the best dog diabetes diet. Most veterinarians recommend a diet low in fat and high in fiber. Your veterinarian may recommend a prescription dog food designed for dogs with diabetes, or a homemade diet developed by a veterinary nutritionist. Some dogs may refuse to eat special diets; in that event, careful choices should be made when selecting regular dog food. (Also read 3 healthy foods to feed your dog)
- Make sure your dog gets adequate exercise. Exercise not only can help reduce your dog’s weight, but it also lowers blood glucose levels. Your dog should exercise every day for about the same length of time at about the same exertion level. Consistency is important—an unusually long or vigorous exercise session can cause blood glucose levels to drop dangerously low.
- If necessary, help your dog lose weight. If a dog is overweight, shedding some pounds can make the cells more sensitive to insulin, which means that glucose uptake is easier, and therefore will improve his condition with diabetes.
- Carefully monitor your dog. Although all dog owners pay special attention to their dogs and keep a high concern for their well-being and health, this is even more important for dogs with diabetes. You should monitor your dog’s medications, diet, exercise, and observe how his day-to-day activities help or hurt his condition. If you ever think there’s a problem, contact your veterinarian.
- Bring your dog to the vet for regular checkups. This is advisable for any dog and more so if your dog has diabetes. After all, other diseases can easily develop if your dog has diabetes, such as cataracts, kidney disease, nerve disease, infections, etc. By taking your dog to the veterinarian frequently, he or she can monitor your dog’s diabetes and test or look for any other possible conditions. Once again, if you see or suspect your diabetic dog is having any kind of other health issues, contact your veterinarian immediately.
Monitoring and Managing Your Dog’s Diabetes
Although some cases may be more challenging, canine diabetes can be usually managed successfully without complications. From giving injections to monitoring glucose levels daily, you will play the primary role in your dog’s care, and your commitment to keeping up with his daily shots and monitoring is extremely important.
Your veterinarian will work with you to determine the best management plan for your dog.
At the start of treatment, this may involve frequent visits to the clinic for testing and medication adjustments, but hopefully, the right combination of medication, dosage, diet, and home monitoring will soon have arrived that will enable you to keep your dog’s blood sugar consistently regulated and help him live a full, happy life.
Your dog’s diabetes management plan provided by your veterinarian will probably include information about:
• insulin medication for your dog and how to give the injections
• diet and exercise recommendations
• a daily glucose-monitoring system that will work best for your dog
• any warning signs to watch out for
Helpful Additions To Your Dog’s Diet
Antioxidant foods fight free radicals that cause inflammation, aging, degenerative diseases, and tissue damage. They’re the plant pigments that give fruit and vegetables their color.
Feed foods rich in antioxidants like phytoplankton, berries, other colorful fruit and veggies, and even parsley is a powerful antioxidant.
Give these friendly bacteria to keep your dog’s gut and digestive tract healthy and support his immune system. A recent study found altered gut bacterial populations in diabetic dogs. Give your dog good human-grade probiotics as some products made for pets have been found to contain no live organisms!
This is an excellent antioxidant and it’s one of the very few things that may actually help beta cells regenerate. If you have a dog with beginning diabetes you may be able to get some of those beta cells working again. Dr. Hofve says nobody’s proved it but it’s definitely worth a try.
Berberine has long been used in China to treat diabetes. It’s found in Oregon grape and goldenseal. Goldenseal is endangered so use Oregon grape if you can. It’s important to ask your herbalist or holistic vet about the dosage that’s best for your dog, as you don’t want to overdo berberine.
Adding digestive enzymes can help your dog get more nutrition out of his food and may help reduce the burden on a compromised pancreas, as well as aid digestion.
If your pet is diagnosed with diabetes, don’t panic. With good veterinary support, you should be able to provide the right care for your pet and ensure you both many more happy years together.
Other conditions to watch out for
If your dog has diabetes it will be more prone to some other conditions, so it’s important to keep an eye out for anything unusual. Diabetic dogs are more prone to:
• Cataracts – these may develop in response to excess sugar levels affecting the eyes. Cataracts can be removed by surgical correction, although many dogs cope well with reduced eyesight, as their sense of smell and hearing is so much better than ours.
• Urinary tract infections – excess sugar in the urine can increase the risk of your dog developing these. Keep an eye out for increase urination or discomfort when urinating, and ask your vet for advice.
Although an affliction that needs to be treated and managed, a diabetes diagnosis is not the end of the road for your dog. Many dogs live normal, long lives with diabetes, just like humans do.
However, to put yourself in the best situation as a dog owner, you’ll want to know how to tell if your dog has diabetes, what you can to prevent the disease, and what treatment options look like if your dog is ever diagnosed.
Ultimately, we all want the best for our dogs, which means dealing with the unfortunate possibility of disease. By taking the right steps, however, you can make the most out of life with your canine companion.