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Understanding Diabetes In Dogs

Written by Ella White


chunky happy looking dog

You’re probably aware of diabetes in humans, but did you know dogs can develop this chronic disease too? There are a number of ways dogs can develop diabetes, and though it can’t be fully cured it can be managed effectively so, should your dog be diagnosed, you don’t need to worry too much about their quality of life.

In this blog, we’ll look at the causes of diabetes in dogs, how to spot the symptoms, and how diabetes in dogs is treated and managed.

In healthy dogs, the food they eat is digested and broken down into glucose – a sugar that fuels some cells and organs. This is absorbed from the intestines into the blood. The cells know to absorb the glucose and use it as fuel thanks to insulin, a hormone released by the pancreas. If either of these two functions aren’t working, it can lead to diabetes.

There are two forms of diabetes that can occur in dogs: 

  1. Insulin deficiency diabetes 
  2. Insulin resistance diabetes

Insulin deficiency is the most common cause of diabetes. It occurs when a dog’s body doesn’t produce enough insulin. This could be caused by damage or malfunction to the pancreas, and is usually treated by daily injections of insulin.

Insulin resistance occurs when the pancreas is able to produce some insulin, but the body isn’t utilizing that insulin the way it should. If the cells in a dog’s body aren’t responding to the insulin, then the cells won’t receive glucose from the blood. This type of diabetes is more common in older and overweight dogs. Temporary insulin resistance can also occur in female dogs while they’re in heat or pregnant.

There are a number of factors that can cause dogs to develop diabetes, and some – but not all – of them can be prevented.

  • Middle-aged to senior dogs are more likely to develop diabetes than those under 5 years old.
  • Unspayed female dogs are twice as likely to develop diabetes as males.
  • Obese dogs are at a higher risk as it contributed to insulin resistance and pancreatitis.
  • Some medications, including long-term use of steroid medication, can cause diabetes in dogs.
  • Diseases including pancreatitis, Cushing's disease, autoimmune diseases, and viral illnesses can all trigger diabetes.
  • Some dog breeds are more susceptible to diabetes.

Owners of the following dog breeds should be aware of their predisposition to diabetes:

  • Australian Terriers
  • Bichons Frises
  • Beagles
  • Cairn Terriers
  • Dachshunds
  • Fox Terriers
  • Keeshonds
  • Miniature Poodles
  • Miniature Schnauzers
  • Pugs
  • Pulis
  • Samoyeds

Diabetes causes excess sugar to build up in the bloodstream, while the cells that need sugar for fuel cannot access it. Muscle and organ cells are then deprived of the glucose they need to create energy, leading the body to break down fats and proteins as an alternative source of fuel.

High sugar levels in the blood can also ‘poison’ the organs, and can cause damage to the heart, blood vessels, nerves, eyes, and kidneys. To diagnose diabetes in dogs, vets will carry out simple tests to check their blood sugar levels.

The long-term effects of diabetes on a dog’s health can include:

  • Cataracts and eventually blindness
  • An enlarged liver
  • Consistent urinary tract infections
  • Seizures
  • Kidney failure
  • Ketoacidosis, signaled by rapid breathing, dehydration, lethargy, vomiting, or sweet-smelling breath

There are some clear early signs of diabetes that dog owners should be aware of:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Increased urination and “accidents” in house-trained dogs
  • Weight loss despite normal eating habits
  • Increased appetite

As diabetes develops, more advanced symptoms are displayed:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of energy
  • Depression and lethargy
  • Vomiting

The best treatment for a diabetic dog will be prescribed based on the individual needs of your pet. However, most diabetic dogs will be given a management and treatment plan by their vet. This will probably include:

  • A recommended diet rich in high-quality protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates
  • Consistent exercise to avoid spikes and drops in glucose levels
  • Daily injections of insulin, to be administered at home by the owner
  • Glucose monitoring
  • Regular tests and checkups with your vet

With the right support and a closely-followed diabetes management plan, dogs with either form of canine diabetes can live long, happy lives.