One of the most popular posts that my co-blogger, Franklin, ever wrote for this blog was “Your Dog is Not a Human, So Don’t Feed Him Like One!” In it, we introduced you guys to a lot of common human foods that are given to dogs as treats, and why those foods are actually pretty bad for your pup. One of the big ones on that list was sugar. You’d be surprised how many things sugar is found in, from regular old sandwich bread to canned spaghetti sauce. This big no-no for dogs is a leading cause of canine diabetes, which can have a huge impact on your dog’s health.
I was surprised to find out a few days ago that it’s not common knowledge that dogs with diabetes need insulin shots. I was speaking to a group of friends about our dogs, surprise, and it came up that one dog who Janice and Leroy practically grew up with was recently diagnosed with diabetes. I asked the owner how she was handling the shots and was met with blank stares all around. So I thought it was time that we dove into all the ins and outs of canine diabetes here on the blog.
Two Terms to Know
Before we get started, there are two terms you need to understand, in order to understand diabetes:
Glucose, or Sugar: This is an essential component of life. Dogs, just like people, turn glucose into the energy that keeps their heart pumping, their lungs breathing, their brain functioning, and their muscles moving. This does not mean your dog needs to eat a lot of sugar! Just know that glucose (AKA sugar) is vital for staying alive.
Insulin: In order to get glucose into the cells so that it can be broken down into energy, the body has to have insulin. This is a substance that is produced by the pancreas, and all it does it help the cells turn glucose into energy. Without it, your body may as well not have any glucose at all, meaning your organs won’t be able to function.
Two Types of Canine Diabetes
Just like humans, dogs can have either Type I or Type II diabetes. The first type is something a dog is either born with or something they may develop if they have a severe case of pancreatitis, for example. This type means that a dog isn’t producing enough insulin for his body to break down and use sugar properly. This isn’t something that can be cured – the only way for the dog to continue to live a healthy life is to get regular injections of insulin forever.
The second type of canine diabetes, Type II, is something that can develop at any stage of life. This type means that, while the body is producing enough insulin just fine, the cells have stopped responding to the insulin. Think of the cells as a warehouse. Inside that warehouse, one of the things that happens is that glucose is converted into energy. But in order for that to happen, insulin has to be inside the warehouse. With Type II diabetes, insulin is standing outside knocking on the door, but the warehouse won’t open up. This type of diabetes can be cured in many cases, through changes in diet and exercise, but can also be treated with oral medications or injections.
Risk Factors for Canine Diabetes
Just as with humans, there are several risk factors for dogs that could indicate a likelihood of developing either type of diabetes. Those include:
Breed: There are some breeds that are more prone to pancreatitis, and thus Type I diabetes, such as keeshonds, pugs, beagles, and dachshunds; but a study from 2003 actually shows that mixed breed dogs are the most susceptible to diabetes overall.
Weight: One of the biggest risk factors for diabetes in dogs is being overweight. Besides feeding your dog people food, one big problem is that many people don’t realize that treats count towards your dog’s daily calorie allotment. If he’s already getting a full bowl of food, treats are excessive calories. If you want to give him treats without limiting his food, be sure you are using low-calorie treats.
Diet: The pancreas is very susceptible to pancreatitis if a dog eats a lot of fat. It’s important to limit the fat in their diet, which typically means stop giving them people food. Most dog foods are formulated to be low in fat. You can ask your vet for a good food recommendation, or find a reduced fat formula of the brand you like. It’s also important to feed your dog a protein-rich diet because a lack of protein has been linked to increasing risk for diabetes.
Age: Older dogs are more likely to develop Type II diabetes than younger dogs because the cells can become more and more insulin resistant over time.
Gender: Female dogs, and neutered males, are more likely to develop diabetes than intact males. The “why” is easier to explain with female dogs: their bodies are more likely to store fat in order to feed puppies (even if they are spayed), which can lead to pancreatitis and diabetes. Research suggests that the hormone changes in a neutered male are what lead to a higher risk for diabetes.
Medications: Taking certain medicines can have a big impact on a dog’s pancreas, which can lead to diabetes. These include certain medicines used for epilepsy, certain antibiotics, certain chemotherapy drugs, certain antacids, Tylenol, and aspirin.
Genetics: Finally, a dog is more likely to develop diabetes if one of her parents or grandparents had diabetes as well. Other genetic issues, like autoimmune disease and protein deposits in the pancreas, can also cause diabetes.
In order to learn what vets will look for in a dog to diagnose diabetes, I turned to Steve, my trusty vet. Of course, the ultimate diagnostic tool is a blood test, but there are several things that you can watch for before you get to that point. Here are some signs that your dog may be diabetic:
They drink a lot more water than usual, to an excessive degree, even when they aren’t hot or haven’t been exercising a lot.
They need to pee a lot more often than before. They may start having accidents in the house if you can’t get them outside fast enough. This may happen even if they haven’t started drinking more.
They’ve started to lose a lot of weight, even if they’ve been eating the same or more than usual.
Alternatively, they could be putting on a lot of weight.
They seem tired all the time, wanting to play less often and nap more. With some dogs, you may notice that they seem to have some weakness in their back legs.
Their hair is thinning along the back and neck.
They have been vomiting a lot recently. This is especially common in Poodles and Dachshunds who have diabetes.
Their eyes appear cloudy, and they don’t have any known eye problems.
They seem depressed, not responding to any of their usual favorite things, or have become very moody and unpredictable.
Your dog has had a rash of skin infections, urinary tract infections, or issues with their gums lately.
If any of these things describe your dog recently, then they may need to go in for a checkup and a blood test.
The Blood Test for Diagnosis
At the end of the day, no vet can tell you for sure if your dog has diabetes until they do a blood test. This measures the glucose level in the blood. A vet will compare the glucose level in the blood to what would be considered a healthy, normal amount. If the level is too high, it means that your dog’s cells are either resisting the insulin that would convert the glucose into energy (Type II diabetes), or your dog isn’t producing enough insulin to convert the glucose into energy (Type I diabetes).
By looking at your dog’s other symptoms, the vet can determine which type of diabetes your dog has. The next step will be to measure the glucose in your dog’s blood repeatedly over a few hours. This will show the vet how much insulin your dog needs, and how often they need it, in order to get their glucose levels back to a healthy amount.
Treatments for Diabetes
The goal of treating diabetes is to get the blood glucose level to a healthy, normal level – and to keep it there. The most common method for achieving this goal is through insulin injections. Most dogs will need one or two insulin shots a day once they’ve been diagnosed with diabetes. Right now, the only way to get a safe insulin for dogs is to get it via prescription from your vet.
You will need to regularly test your dog’s glucose levels to ensure that they are staying at a healthy level. The test kits for this are very similar to a human glucose test kit and require only a prick of blood. It’s important to stick with a regular testing schedule because you will almost always have to fiddle with the insulin dose until you find exactly the right amount for your dog. And as their weight changes, the amount that they need will change again.
Changing up your dog’s food and exercise routines will be a big part of treating diabetes. Switching to a high-protein, low-fat diet that follows a strict calorie limit is going to be one of the first things a vet prescribes for a Type II diabetic dog. Getting more exercise is important as well, especially if the dog is overweight.
Your daily routine with a diabetic dog will be a bit different than with a healthy dog. For one thing, you’ll need to monitor your dog’s drinking and peeing habits to make sure that they are staying healthy. The minute you start to see excess in either of these areas, you’ll know that they may not be getting enough insulin. You’ll also become very familiar with the vet’s office because you’ll have regular checkups to monitor the dog’s health. But beyond being a bit more attentive to your dog’s habits, and taking a few minutes to give them their medicines and check their blood sugar levels, there won’t be any other big changes that you need to make in your dog’s routine.
Although it can seem a bit daunting at first, the fact is that modern medicine has made it completely easy to take care of a dog with diabetes. This is not a death sentence by any means. In fact, a dog with diabetes can go on to live a long and active life without ever having any other issues. And with Type II diabetes, your dog could easily be cured in a relatively short time span with some dedication on your part.
Wondering how to prevent your dog from getting diabetes? You can start by making sure that they stay at a healthy weight, and are always eating an appropriate serving of low-fat, high-protein dog food. Limit their exposure to people food and treats, choosing clicker training or some other training program instead. Make sure you stay on top of their dental care, to eliminate issues with bacteria attacking the immune system, and always ask your vet if there is an alternative to any medications that could be linked to diabetes.
If you are extra concerned, you may want to thoroughly research a breed you intend to adopt and choose one that is not known for being prone to diabetes. Be sure to talk to a breeder and ask if the pup’s parents or grandparents had any indicators of diabetes themselves.
Beyond that, all you can do is love your dog and take care of them sensibly. Just remember that diabetes isn’t a death sentence, and is easily treatable in most dogs.