What You Need to Know About Diabetes in Dogs

Here are five key insights that can help you avoid diabetes or manage the disease in your dog.

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Diabetes in dogs (and cats) is certainly not uncommon. In fact, current research estimates that roughly one in every 500 canines will develop diabetes in their lifetime. Certain inherited breed tendencies and risk factors may predispose your pet to the condition; but nonetheless, incidence of this disorder is growing at an unprecedented rate.

Basically, diabetes mellitus represents a problem with the way your pup’s body processes sugar. Cells in a dog’s body run on sugar known as glucose, which is made available when dietary carbohydrates are processed during digestion. Cells extract glucose from the blood using a pancreatic hormone called insulin. When the body begins to under-produce or misuse insulin, cells don’t take in enough glucose, amino acids, or electrolytes. Simultaneously, sugar begins to build up in the bloodstream. This causes cells to become under-nourished; while various organs become “bathed” in sugar and may suffer eventual damage.

At present, diabetes isn’t curable. It is, fortunately, treatable — though treatment can involve regular glucose monitoring, ongoing dietary modifications, administration of targeted drugs, recurrent vet visits, and a constant watchful eye. If you’re like me, you would undertake all this in a heartbeat to help your furry friend live a longer, healthier life. But it’s certainly a time-consuming process, and often expensive.

With that in mind, here are five key insights that can help you understand diabetes more clearly — and remove unnecessary hurdles that may lead to the ailment and/or disrupt your pet’s ongoing quality of life.

1. Know the types

I used to think canines were susceptible to Type 1 diabetes. But there are actually two forms, according to the UK’s Royal Veterinary College: insulin-deficiency diabetes (IDD) and insulin-resistance diabetes (IRD). Neither version is the precise equivalent of human diabetes; though according to my vet, the mechanisms are similar.

Essentially, a dog suffering from IDD no longer makes enough insulin to properly control glucose levels. As with human Type 1 diabetes, causes may include certain disorders that attack the immune system; as well as pancreatic inflammation. IRD occurs when some complicating factor inhibits insulin from functioning properly. Catalysts may include endocrine disorders, pregnancy, or various steroid/hormone treatments.

2. Understand the risk factors

A 2003 study published in the Veterinary Journal suggested that generally, mixed-breed dogs may be more prone to diabetes than purebreds. But all dogs generally become more susceptible as they age.

According to my own vet — as well as renowned holistic vets like Dr. Karen Becker — it’s highly possible that a significant proportion of canine-specific diabetes cases may be influenced by lifestyle factors. Consider that adult-onset diabetes typically manifests later in life, after your pet has encountered multiple lifestyle factors that can inhibit proper insulin management. And owners of corpulent canines, don’t forget: Added weight can actually make cells more resistant to insulin. High-fat diets also contribute to pancreatic inflammation; which, in turn, can trigger insulin-related ailments like diabetes.

Healthy foods in dog bowl by Shutterstock.
Healthy foods in dog bowl by Shutterstock.

3. Keep diet and exercise in mind

Did you know that domesticated dogs and cats have no actual, biological requirement for most grains and carbs in their diet? Now certainly, these foods can often be part of a sensible meal plan. But consider that carb fillers can account for as much as 80 percent of today’s commercially processed pet foods. Why? Because they’re most cost-effective for manufacturers, and they have less tendency to spoil at room temperature. Unfortunately, these carbs break down into sugar within the bloodstream — and excess sugar can lead directly to diabetes.

Help minimize this risk by feeding a moisture-rich, portion-controlled, species-specific diet that emphasizes 1) pure, clean proteins; 2) heart-healthy fats; 3) species-safe veggies plus moderate fruits; and 4) enzyme supplements that can help an aging pancreas process incoming nutrients. Similarly, engage your pet in a regular aerobic exercise routine that keeps excess weight at bay. My vet insists that a reasonably healthy pet should get at least 15 to 20 minutes of aerobic activity every single day. Remember, it all adds up: a fun indoor fetch session, a brisk outdoor walk, backyard romping, a leisurely jog in the park, even swimming in a favorite pond or lake.

4. Know the signs to monitor

The onset of canine diabetes can often be somewhat stealthy, so keep an eye out for possible clues and symptoms. Sometimes, for example, excess sugar can begin leaching into the urine. So you may notice your pup peeing more frequently, having unusual in-house accidents, even experiencing UTI’s due to bacterial growth from the surplus sugar.

You may also notice your pooch drinking more often. Appetite may increase as well, since key amino acids aren’t being properly utilized by the cells. Yet your dog may nonetheless begin losing weight because incoming energy isn’t being used efficiently. You may also notice general sluggishness or problems with vision; even an extremely obvious ankle-walking gait called plantigrade stance. Interestingly, the latter only occurs with felines and often normalizes once blood sugar levels are regulated.

Most of these symptoms can also be due to a range of health problems and/or age-related issues. So if you notice something that seems off-kilter, check with your vet.

5. Support veterinary treatment

If your pet is diagnosed with diabetes, follow your vet’s guidelines for regular monitoring. But also remember that careful diet modification and home care can have a measurable impact on your furry friend’s longevity and life quality. Added fiber, for example, impedes the speed at which glucose enters the bloodstream. Often, it can also help satisfy your dog’s appetite, leading to a more consistent weight. Closely monitor labels on commercially processed pet foods, since they’re often brimming with carbohydrates. Instead, consider holistic, low-carb options. Brands like Nutrisca are made with chickpeas as a nutritious binder — instead of carb-boosting potatoes, grain, or tapioca.

Diabetes diagnosis aside, exercise will always be one of the most important components of a happy, vibrant canine life. Consistent activity helps control your dog’s weight, and it also lowers blood glucose levels. Aim for a steady exertion level that suits your pet’s age and overall condition. It’s a healthy habit for both of you … and it strengthens your lifelong bond!

Top photo: Overweight dog by Shutterstock.

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Marybeth Bittel

Marybeth lives in the Midwest with her wonderful husband, and her rescue dogs Grant and Maizy — all of them Heinz 57 mixed-breed types. A freelance writer and marketing consultant, she’s been rehabilitating severely abused rescues for over two decades. She’s currently working toward specialized certifications in animal nutrition counseling. Connect with her on LinkedIn or check out her family Instagram feed.

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