What is Diabetes in Dogs?
Diabetes is a chronic problem that disrupts your dog’s normal metabolism and limits his ability to turn food into energy that the cells can use. The two most important pieces of the puzzle are glucose and insulin.
Glucose is a type of sugar that’s an essential source of energy for the body, including the brain. It gets absorbed into the blood from the intestines before being transported to other parts of the body.
Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas. It controls the amount of glucose in the blood by ‘deciding’ how much to move into the cells to be used for energy. When the glucose-insulin relationship is not working normally, diabetes is the result.
Types of Diabetes in Dogs
There are two types of diabetes in dogs:
Diabetes Mellitus (like Type 1 diabetes in people)
This is the most common type of diabetes in dogs. It happens when your dog’s pancreas doesn’t produce insulin as it should. If your dog has diabetes mellitus, he’ll likely need insulin medication for the rest of his life.
Insulin Resistance Diabetes (like Type 2 diabetes in people)
This type of diabetes occurs when the body makes insulin, but the cells can’t make proper use of it, meaning your dog has insulin resistance, and the cells can’t absorb glucose from the blood even when they need energy. Older and overweight dogs are more likely to suffer from this type of diabetes.
No matter which type of diabetes your dog has, it creates high blood glucose levels, yet his cells can’t get the energy they need. High blood sugar causes damage to organs, such as the kidneys, eyes, and heart. Meanwhile, the body starts breaking down fats and proteins (muscle) to try to get the fuel it needs.
What Are The Symptoms of Diabetes in Dogs?
There are some early signs of diabetes mellitus to look out for if you’re worried your dog might be diabetic.
- Excessive thirst – you’ll notice you’re filling his water bowl more often
- Frequent urination – your dog’s kidneys are working overtime to try to pee out excess sugar. Your dog may start having accidents indoors.
- Weight loss – when the body can’t sugar for energy, it starts to break down fat and muscle to meet its needs. If your dog has unexplained weight loss, diabetes could be the reason.
- Hunger – your dog may seem extra hungry because his cells aren’t getting enough fuel.
Be especially alert if you have an older, female dog. Diabetes usually occurs in middle aged dogs, and females get it twice as often as males (1).
If you see these signs, you should ask your vet to test your dog for diabetes. Once diabetes progresses, you’ll see more serious symptoms like vomiting, loss of appetite, lethargy or depression.
How is Diabetes Mellitus Diagnosed?
Diabetes is easy to diagnose. Your vet will test for high blood glucose level (hyperglycemia) and glucose in the urine (glycosuria). In some cases, a blood test will also show elevated levels of enzymes in the liver.
Diabetes Mellitus Treatment in Dogs
Diabetes in dogs is treated with a combination of diet, exercise, and insulin.
Like people with insulin-dependent diabetes, dogs need to replace the insulin in the body with daily insulin injections, usually twice a day.
You should learn how to test your dog’s blood glucose at home so that you can give the appropriate dosage of insulin. Ask your vet to show you how to do this. It’s much better to take this into your own hands so that you can measure your dog’s blood sugar levels at different times of the day.
You’ll also need to learn how to inject insulin under your dog’s skin, and practice getting him comfortable with it. Make sure your dog has a moderate activity level and regular mealtimes to help avoid spikes or drops in blood sugar levels.
Diet is a very important part of managing your diabetic dog’s health. Feeding a whole food, raw diet is always the best option. Your dog will need meals at regular times to maintain consistent blood sugar levels. He’ll also need enough protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates to help slow down the absorption of glucose.
Research shows a diet high in insoluble fiber can help lower blood glucose levels in diabetic dogs (2). Insoluble fiber isn’t digested, but it helps speed up the movement of food through the digestive tract, and it slows absorption of carbohydrates and sugars.
Foods high in insoluble fiber that are suitable for your dog include …
- Apples, with skin
- Greens like kale, spinach, asparagus, Brussels sprouts (steamed or pureed)
- Avocado (only feed the flesh, not the skin or stone)
- Sweet potato, carrots (small amounts only because of sugar content in root veggies)
Foods To Avoid
Chronic diseases like diabetes stem from chronic inflammation in the body. There are several foods that promote inflammation. Avoid feeding these to your diabetic dog:
- Starches like grain and potatoes break down to simple sugars too quickly
- Vegetable oils like corn, soybean, and sunflower are rich in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids
- Conventional dairy products
- Artificial and natural flavorings, coloring agents and preservatives
- Heat-processed foods like kibble and canned food
As always, make sure your dog gets regular exercise.
Is Diabetes Treatment Expensive?
The earlier you can diagnose diabetes in dogs, the more manageable it will be.There might be more expenses and energy upfront, with more frequent visits to the vet to figure out the right dose of medication. But going forward, the main expense will be monthly costs for insulin, which differ depending on where you live. In some cases, having pet insurance will cover the medicationm as long as diabetes was not a pre-existing condition when you signed up.
Prognosis for a Dog with Diabetes Mellitus
Life expectancy for dogs with diabetes depends on how well you manage the condition. With insulin, a healthy diet, and regular exercise, most diabetic dogs can live a long and happy life.
If you don’t catch it early and fail to get your dog the treatment he needs, however, there can be some very dire consequences.
Common Complications of Canine Diabetes
If diabetes in dogs is left untreated, it can lead to some very serious life-threatening complications, such as:
- Cataracts that can progress to blindness
- Urinary tract infections
- Fatty liver disease
- Kidney disease
- Heart disease
- Bacterial and fungal infections
This last one, ketoacidosis, is especially dangerous … and it’s another reason it’s really important to monitor your dog’s blood glucose levels at home so that you can give the correct insulin dose. Ketoacidosis happens when the cells use fatty acids for energy (since they are unable to use glucose). These free fatty acids get broken down into ketoacids, which cause extreme damage to organs as they build up in the blood.
Signs that ketoacidosis is happening include weakness, sweet smelling breath, dehydration, panting, and vomiting. If you see these symptoms, call your vet right away. Your dog may need IV fluids as well as insulin therapy. (3)
How to Prevent And Manage Diabetes in Dogs
Prevention is always better than cure, and luckily diet and exercise play a huge role in preventing diabetes. Here are some risk factors for diabetes in dogs. These tips will also help you manage your dog’s existing diabetes.
Feed A Good Diet
Even though diet doesn’t directly cause diabetes mellitus, it is a factor in preventing and managing diabetes. Feed your dog a whole food, preferably raw meat based diet. Dr Jean Hofve recommends a diet with at least 30% protein, with minimal carbohydrates, and plenty of foods high in insoluble fiber (see the list above). You’ll also want to keep the fat content low to minimize your diabetic dog’s increased potential for pancreatitis.
Provide Antioxidants, Probiotics And Digestive Enzymes
Adding foods that reduce inflammation, fight oxidative stress in the body, and boost immunity are a great tool in your arsenal against diabetes. Include nutritious foods like berries and fresh vegetables in the diet.
Probiotics play a big role in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome and supporting your dog’s immune system. Research at Iowa State University found that gut bacteria changes in dogs with diabetes mellitus (4). Probiotics help improve your dog’s gut health and lower his susceptibility to disease.
Maintain Healthy Weight
Overweight and obese dogs experience chronic inflammation and changes in hormone secretion that predispose them to pancreatitis and diabetes (5). To reduce risk of diabetes, make sure your dog gets exercise at least twice a day and adjust their diet to get them to a healthy weight.
A poor diet can lead to inflammation of the pancreas. This interferes with the production of insulin and other hormones like glucagon and gastrin. The pancreas also produces important digestive enzymes that help your body break down protein and fat. Diabetes and pancreatitis are closely linked diseases. A damaged pancreas is likely to lead to diabetes … and vice versa (6).
Caution With Steroid-Based Medications
Research shows chronic use of corticosteroids may lead to diabetes in your dog (7). If your dog’s on steroid medications, watch for signs of diabetes.
Manage Other Endocrine Disease
Diseases stemming from other hormone imbalances in your dog may increase your dog’s likelihood of diabetes. Cushing’s disease, for example, causes overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which causes inflammation and increased risk of diabetes (8).
So … now that you understand diabetes in dogs, you’re better equipped to spot early symptoms and successfully manage it, should your dog develop diabetes. And this information will also help you take steps to prevent diabetes in the first place.
- David Bruyette DVM DACVIM.Diabetes Mellitus in Dogs And Cats. Merck Veterinary Manual. Revised July 2019.
- Kimmel SE, Michel KE, Hess RS, Ward CR. Effects of insoluble and soluble dietary fiber on glycemic control in dogs with naturally occurring insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000 Apr 1;216(7):1076-81.
- RS Hess DVM DACVIM. Canine Diabetic Ketoacidosis. ACVIM 2008.
- Jergens Albert E. et al. Microbiota-Related Changes in Unconjugated Fecal Bile Acids Are Associated With Naturally Occurring, Insulin-Dependent Diabetes Mellitus in Dogs. Frontiers in Veterinary Science Vol 6 2019.
- Clark M, Hoenig M. MetabolicEffects of Obesity and Its Interaction with Endocrine Diseases. Vet Clin NorthAm Small Anim Pract. 2016 Sep;46(5):797-815.
- Davison LJ.Diabetes mellitus and pancreatitis–cause or effect? J Small Anim Pract.2015 Jan;56(1):50
- Black HE, Rosenblum IY, Capen CC. Chemically induced (streptozotocin-alloxan) diabetes mellitus in the dog. Biochemical and ultrastructural studies. Am J Pathol. 1980 Feb;98(2):295-310.
- J Pendergrass DVM. Hyperadrenocortisim and Diabetes In Dogs. American Veterinarian, January 2018, Volume 3, Issue 1