By Hanie Elfenbein, DVM
Diabetes in dogs is not a death sentence. It takes dedication, but your dog can still live a long, happy life. Diabetes means that the body is unable to use glucose (sugar) appropriately. This leads to high levels of sugar in the blood, which can cause many health problems.
Just like humans, our pets can get both Type I and Type II diabetes. Type I diabetes is also known as insulin-deficiency. It is due to the body's inability to produce insulin. Insulin is normally produced in the pancreas and is important in helping cells use glucose (sugar), the basic energy source. Our digestive systems are designed to turn food into glucose for cells to use. Without insulin, glucose cannot get into cells. People and animals with Type I diabetes need to be given insulin so that their body can use glucose.
Type II diabetes is known as insulin resistant diabetes. It happens when the pancreas makes insulin but the body's cells do not respond to the insulin. Sometimes Type II diabetes can be reversed through weight loss and improvements in diet and exercise.
In our companions, dogs are more likely to develop Type I diabetes while cats are more likely to develop Type II diabetes. Some diseases and medications can also cause Type II diabetes in dogs. Fortunately for the animals with Type II diabetes, some will recover through diet and exercise. Unfortunately, once your pet develops Type I diabetes, it is not reversible.
Causes of Canine Diabetes
In dogs, Type I diabetes is caused by destruction of insulin producing cells in the pancreas. These cells die as a result of inflammation of the pancreas, known as pancreatitis. Some dog breeds are predisposed to chronic pancreatitis and diabetes, including Keeshonds and Samoyeds.
Like humans and cats, obese dogs are at risk for developing Type II diabetes. So are dogs with Cushing's disease (hyperadrenocorticism), intact (not spayed) female dogs, and those on glucocorticoid (steroid) medications.
Symptoms of Diabetes in Dogs
Diabetes usually has a slow onset. Dogs start drinking more water and urinating more frequently and in larger amounts. They may even have accidents in the house. Dogs may also eat more while losing or maintaining weight. These symptoms are not specific to diabetes but indicate that you should have your dog examined by your veterinarian.
Excess sugar in the blood is excreted in urine. When there is sugar in urine, bacteria can grow and cause urinary tract infections and even bladder infections. Symptoms of these conditions include frequent urgent urinations, painful urination, urine that is bloody or smells bad, and excessive licking of the genitals. Your veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics to treat urinary tract infections.
Diabetes can cause high pressure within the eye, known as glaucoma. In humans, glaucoma is painful, often described as a bad headache that won't go away. Dogs can lose vision or even need to have one or both eyes removed due to severe glaucoma that results from diabetes.
Treatment Options for Diabetic Dogs
Type I diabetic dogs require insulin after every meal. The specific amount and type of insulin will be determined by your veterinarian. It frequently takes several months to determine the most effective treatment plan for each individual dog. This is because there are many types of insulin available to meet dogs’ unique needs. Pet parents of diabetic dogs become very good at giving insulin, which must be injected under the skin.
Initial treatment plans for both Type I and Type II diabetes generally include weight management and exercise, which help stabilize blood sugar. Intact female dogs should be spayed. Treatment for diabetes may also necessitate changes to your dog’s other medications. Your veterinarian may recommend that your dog eat specific high fiber, low simple carbohydrate foods. The number of meals your dog eats per day may also be an important part of diabetes management. All of these decisions are best discussed with a veterinarian who knows your dog and your lifestyle. Often, making a consistent schedule for feeding and exercise are important parts of diabetes management.
Diabetes is a chronic disease. This means that it can be managed over a long period of time. However, treatment may change over time. Your veterinarian will monitor your dog's blood glucose, performing a blood glucose curve, taking measurements every one to two hours over 12 to 24 hours. Your veterinarian is looking to see how high your dog's blood sugar gets and then how low it drops. This indicates how well the body is responding to insulin and will be periodically reevaluated throughout your dog's life.
Diabetic Emergency in Dogs
Very low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) is a medical emergency and can be caused by giving too much insulin or giving insulin at the wrong time. Signs of hypoglycemia include trembling, restlessness, or inability to rise. Vomiting, lethargy, sweet-smelling breath, and rapid breathing may be signs of ketoacidosis, also a medical emergency. If your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, discuss an emergency management plan with your veterinarian.
To learn about the best food options for diabetic dogs, check out these vet-recommended nutritional guidelines.