Diabetes in dogs: Symptoms, care, medications, and more
Whether your dog was recently diagnosed with diabetes or you’ve been managing the disease together for years, it’s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed. What can you do to help them feel their very best?
We wrote this article to bring awareness to diabetes in dogs and to offer tips, techniques, and, as you’ll see, a few of our favourite diabetic dog treat recipes to help make diabetes feel even a little less daunting.
What is diabetes in dogs?
Diabetes is a group of endocrine disorders where glands of the endocrine system fail to secrete hormones and other products into the bloodstream.
With diabetes in dogs, either the pancreas—the part of the body responsible for breaking down things like sugars, fats, and starches—can’t regulate blood sugar (diabetes mellitus (DM), also known as sugar diabetes), or the antidiuretic hormone (ADH) can’t induce sufficient kidney water reabsorption (diabetes insipidus or DI).
Risk factors for diabetes in dogs
Up to 1% of all dogs may develop diabetes in their lifetime.
Diabetes most often presents in middle-aged or older dogs that are overweight or obese. A close cousin to this is your dog’s diet: too many treats or table scraps can compound over time and lead to a diabetes diagnosis.
EXPERT TIP: Not sure if your dog has packed on a few too many pounds? Check out our post on dog weight management for our go-to body condition score chart and how to help your dog successfully and sustainably lose weight.
Although no breed is totally exempt from risk, there are a few that tend to be predisposed to the genes associated with diabetes, or what’s called canine major histocompatibility complex. These high-risk breeds include certain terriers (Tibetan, Carin, Australian), Beagles, Keeshonds, and Samoyeds.
When it comes to sex, the greatest risk is present in intact (AKA not spayed) females. This is because when females enter the diestrus phase during heat and pregnancy, progesterone levels—which have been found to resist insulin—peak. Females are 3 times more likely to develop DM than males.
How does a dog develop diabetes?
How a dog develops diabetes depends on the kind of diabetes and the underlying cause.
Diabetes mellitus (DM) is the most common form of diabetes in dogs. While genetics and breed factor into the equation, the biggest contributor is lifestyle—especially obesity. We don’t exactly understand the relationship between obesity and DM, but we do know excessive fat tissue can lead to insulin resistance in cells, causing the secretion of hormones that stress your dog’s pancreas.
Dogs that eat more will release more insulin from the pancreas. However, because this process is ineffective, it leads to an overproduction of insulin that eventually causes damage to the pancreas’ beta-cells. The nature of this damage can be split into three types:
- Type 1 DM (insulin-dependent): The more common of the two, this involves a near or total destruction of cells and leads to an inability to produce insulin
- Type 2 DM (non-insulin-dependent): More of your dog’s beta-cells are functional, but they are ineffective because they either can’t produce enough insulin, their response is too slow, or there is active insulin resistance
- Type 3 DM (gestational, hormone-induced): Insulin resistance develops because of a high concentration of hormones like progesterone or cortisol
EXPERT TIP: You and your dog don’t have to deal with diabetes alone! Your veterinary team is here to support you every step of the way. Usually the goal is to manage the disease, but in cases where a DI diagnosis is linked to trauma, it’s possible it may be completely cured.
Diabetes insipidus (DI) in dogs, on the other hand, is relatively rare. Unfortunately for dog parents, the cause may be unknown (what we in the veterinary world call idiopathic). Sometimes DI can be linked to birth defects, trauma, brain tumours, adverse medication reactions, or comorbid conditions, but it’s also possible the root cause is something else altogether. Two types can occur:
- Central DI: A complete deficiency of the antidiuretic hormone (ADH)
- Neurogenic DI: A congenital or acquired disease that causes the kidneys to not respond properly to ADH
Symptoms of diabetes in dogs
If you suspect your dog may have diabetes, it’s important to know the early warning signs of diabetes in dogs so you can proactively book in with your family veterinarian before things progress.
There are three early symptoms of diabetes in dogs to watch for:
- Increased drinking (polydipsia)
- Increased peeing (polyuria)
- Increased appetite (polyphagia)
EXPERT TIP: To help you determine whether your dog is lapping up more water than usual, set out a measured amount of water in the morning and subtract what’s left over at the end of the day. Do this over an entire week and take the average. Drinking more than 100mL/kg/day is considered excessive.
Although it’s not a 100% guarantee, these warning signs—particularly polydipsia and polyuria—are worth watching out for, as they may also indicate other diseases such as urinary tract infections, kidney disease, behavioural or neurological disorders, liver disease, and other endocrine conditions.
Later symptoms of diabetes in dogs include:
- Weight loss (even if eating well)
- Loss of appetite
- Lethargy and weakness
- Cloudy eyes due to cataract formation
- Poor haircoat quality
- Frequent, long-term infections, such as skin and urinary tract infections
How to diagnose diabetes in dogs
If your dog is presenting with some or all of the symptoms of diabetes in dogs, make an appointment to see your family veterinarian.
The road to a diabetes diagnosis involves a lot of testing, some of which can get pricey. Because diabetes is a complex disease, it’s important your vet gathers as much data and as many insights as possible to create the best, most personalized treatment for your dog (a bit like our dog subscription boxes, really).
Some basic testing may include:
- Complete blood count – Checks for dehydration, anemia, infection, or inflammatory disease
- Blood chemistry panel, including liver and kidney values – Checks for things like increased blood glucose, electrolyte balance, and effects of dehydration
- Urinalysis – Checks for sugar levels, bacteria, ketones, and urine concentration
Your veterinarian may recommend other tests, too:
- Urine culture – Helps rule out sneaky, persistent bacteria
- Blood pressure – Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure is associated with diabetes and can lead to blindness, kidney failure, and stroke
- Water deprivation test – Limiting your dog’s water intake to an appropriate amount per kilogram and retesting urine concentration
- Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) – If DI is suspected in dogs, these imaging techniques can be used to check for tumours
Once a diagnosis has been confirmed… now what?
Unfortunately, the testing doesn’t stop there.
Routine blood glucose testing is essential in early DM to make sure your dog is on an ideal insulin type and dose. This is often paired with a blood glucose curve to track how your dog responds to insulin (how long it takes to work, blood glucose range, and how long it lasts).
Where possible, this testing is best done at home. With your dog in a familiar, comfortable environment, they’ll have a lesser chance of stress hyperglycemia (high blood glucose due to stress).
To run the test, you’ll either take a small blood sample from a needle prick every few hours or apply a skin-mounted monitor. Both require a reading every couple of hours, making it a full-day commitment (between 8-24 hours) with a long-term payoff.
EXPERT TIP: If you’re squeamish with needles or struggling to get your dog to cooperate, it’s perfectly okay to ask that these tests be done in a clinic.
Once you’ve determined the right type and dose of insulin, more regular testing is done based on your vet’s recommendation to make sure things are still on track. Of course, if you notice changes in your dog—a dramatic increase in appetite, for example—let your vet know as soon as possible as that may be a clue that it’s time for a change.
Blood glucose monitoring isn’t the only thing you can do to care for a diabetic dog. As part of your daily routine, keep an eye on things like:
- Food and water intake
- Urine output
- Energy levels
- Medication and other treatments
The more data, the better!
How to care for a diabetic dog
The best way to care for a diabetic dog is consistency.
Like us, dogs thrive in routine so establishing a post-diagnosis protocol should come fairly easy to them. This means consistent feeding times, consistent insulin administration, consistent exercise, and consistent love and affection to keep their stress levels as low as possible.
As a bonus, you might experience a decrease in stress, too!
Diabetes medications for dogs
Although medication is certainly common in diabetes treatment programs, it’s not the only option. How your dog is treated for diabetes depends on the type and subtype they’ve been diagnosed with.
EXPERT TIP: Dog parents often ask us: can my dog take the same medications I do for Type II DM? The answer is a definite no. Dogs don’t respond to the oral medications us humans take. It’s not worth the risk!
Treatments for diabetes insipidus in dogs
These split into two pathways:
- Central – Desmopressin, a synthetic form of ADH, is given as eye drops, nose drops, or even an injection under the skin
- Nephrogenic – There are unfortunately no specific therapies to reverse or cure DI. Supportive therapy may include thiazide diuretics (an oral diuretic that prevents salt absorption in the kidney) and/or a low-salt diet
Treatments for diabetes mellitus in dogs
Your dog’s DM treatment may incorporate some or all of the following:
- Insulin injections – Available as pens or via injections with small, sharp needles to help minimize discomfort
EXPERT TIP: Insulin doesn’t sting—we promise!—but it does need to be refrigerated, rolled, and shaken prior to use. Make sure to check the expiry date; old insulin won’t pack the same punch.
- Weight loss program – Setting goals and tracking progress to allow better control over blood sugar
- Exercise – Encouraging the body to use its energy more effectively
- Diet – A therapeutic high-fibre diet can improve glycemic control and promote weight loss at the same time
- Spaying – Intact diabetic females should be spayed to remove the insulin resistant effects of progesterone
- Consistent meal times – As we mentioned before, consistency is key to success when it comes to managing dog diabetes. Aim for two meals a day in line with their insulin injection times
Speaking of food…
It’s best to administer an injection just before your dog wraps up their meal.
If you give the injection before they eat and for some reason they decide to skip dinner, there’s a risk of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
EXPERT TIP: If your dog stops eating for any reason, discuss with your veterinarian what to do. Your vet may recommend a blood sugar re-test and changes to their insulin protocol.
Left untreated, hypoglycemia can quickly become a medical emergency. It’s most likely to occur at insulin’s peak (5-8 hours after administration), so keep an eye out for:
- Sudden lethargy or weakness
- Uncoordinated movements or stumbling
- Loss of consciousness
If your dog exhibits any of the above, contact a veterinarian immediately. They may suggest at-home crisis management strategies like applying corn syrup to their gums (1.5mL/kg) or a high-carb meal like bread or rice if they are conscious.
Diabetic dog treats
Just because your dog has diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t still reward them for being a good boy or girl!
We’re sharing two of our favourite diabetic dog treat recipes, but remember: for DI pups we want to keep salt to a minimum, and DM should be high on fibre and low on sugar. Adapt these diabetic dog treats as needed to accommodate your dog’s allergies and other dietary needs.
(Or, if you’re looking for a hands-off solution, let us know your dog’s diagnosis when you subscribe to Waggle Mail and we’ll curate diabetic-friendly treats for your furry friend.)
- ½ cup whole grain oat flour
- 1 ½ lbs beef or chicken liver
- 2 whole eggs
- Preheat oven to 350℉
- Line pan with parchment paper
- Pulse liver in food processor until finely ground
- Combine chopped liver, flour, and eggs in a bowl and mix until smooth
- Spoon mixture onto pan and spread until about ¼” thick
- Bake for about 15 minutes
- Let cool before cutting into bite-sized pieces
Peanut butter treats
- 1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
- ¼ cup rolled oats
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 large egg
- ¾ cup milk (1% or fat free)
- 1 cup peanut butter (no added salt or sugar)
- Preheat oven to 325℉
- Whisk together flour, oats, and baking powder in a large bowl
- In a separate bowl, combine egg, milk, and peanut butter
- Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture by hand until it forms a dough
- Place dough between two pieces of parchment paper and roll until ½” thick
- Use cookie cutters or cut into whatever shapes you choose!
- Place treats on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet
- Bake for about 15 minutes
- Flip onto another piece of parchment paper, place back on the baking sheet, and bake for another 5-10 minutes (longer for larger cookies)
- Let cool before serving
If baking isn’t your forté, fruits and veggies are a healthy, low-calorie treat option, along with dehydrated dog treats. No matter how you’re treating your pup, make sure not to exceed 10% of your dog’s daily kCal. If weight loss is the goal, it may be wise to skip treats altogether (for now, anyway).
Preventing diabetes in dogs
We’ve put together this resource for parents of diabetic dogs, but even better than diabetes management is diabetes prevention.
The best way to prevent diabetes is to work to keep your dog at a happy, healthy weight. Want to know how to help your dog lose weight? Diet and exercise are your two greatest allies.
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Dr. C. Beck
Registered Veterinarian, Founder & CEO