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Diabetes in Dogs: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Management

Perhaps you’ve heard of diabetes in humans. Many people have a relative or a close friend who’s been diagnosed. 

However, not all pet parents realize diabetes can also affect our furry friends.

Diabetes is a fairly common disease that can greatly impact a dog’s overall health, and it requires lifelong care. Fortunately, appropriate management allows many diabetic dogs to live long, happy lives. 

Here, we’ll cover the causes of diabetes in dogs, common symptoms, and how the disease is diagnosed and managed.

What Is Diabetes in Dogs?

If you hear or read about diabetes in dogs, there’s a good chance you’re learning about diabetes mellitus, a disease related to blood sugar regulation. That’s the condition we’ll cover in this article. This is different from diabetes insipidus, a much rarer condition that affects the body’s water balance.

There are two types of diabetes mellitus: Type 1 and Type 2. 

Type 1 means a shortage of insulin (a blood sugar regulating hormone produced by the pancreas) in the body. This could be due to a genetic, auto-immune condition, or due to damage to the pancreas from another disease.

Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, means insulin resistance. The body produces insulin, but can’t use it effectively because cells have become less and less responsive to the hormone. This type of diabetes most commonly develops in overweight or obese dogs as they get older.

In dogs, Type 1 diabetes mellitus is much more common than Type 2.

With diabetes, the blood sugar (glucose) that is a source of ‘fuel’ or energy for the body’s cells becomes elevated in the blood, rather than being taken in by cells that need it. 

Cells then experience a shortage of energy, so the body breaks down muscle and stored fat to use for energy, resulting in weight loss. At the same time, excess glucose in the blood can damage important organs such as the kidney, eyes, blood vessels, and nerves.

What Are the Signs of Diabetes in a Dog?

Diabetic dog symptoms include:

  • Increased urination (amount or frequency).
  • Increased thirst.
  • Increased appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • Development of cataracts (the eyes will look white or cloudy, and a dog might bump into furniture due to vision loss, which can be permanent).
  • With advanced or severe disease, a dog may be lethargic and otherwise acting ill. They may vomit, lose their appetite, or have seizures.

The first symptom many pet parents notice is increased urination and thirst. It’s the body’s way of trying to flush out excess blood sugar.

SEE ALSO: How Can I Tell If My Dog Is Sick?

Causes of Diabetes in Dogs

Some of the most common causes of diabetes in dogs include:

  • Genetics. Certain breeds are more predisposed—including Poodles, Bichon Frises, Dachshunds, and Miniature Schnauzers, to name a few. 
  • Age, since diabetes is more common in middle-aged or older dogs.
  • Obesity, which can contribute to insulin resistance.
  • A history of severe or frequent pancreatitis, an inflammatory disease of the pancreas that can cause permanent damage and affect the organ’s ability to produce insulin.
  • Steroid medications. While uncommon, long-term use of certain steroids (called ‘glucocorticoids’—prednisone is a common example) can affect insulin and blood sugar regulation. This isn’t to say that steroids should never be used. Many dogs (especially those with allergies or auto-immune conditions) need these medications to maintain a good quality of life, so the pros and cons of long-term use must be considered.
  • Cushing’s disease. This condition involves a higher production of natural steroid hormones in the body. Similar to taking steroidal medications, this can impact blood sugar regulation.
  • Gender. Female dogs are more likely than males to develop diabetes, and unspayed females may develop short-term diabetes during heats or pregnancy.

Diagnosis of Diabetes in Dogs

So, how do you know if your dog has diabetes?

A dog’s symptoms, their physical exam (especially if weight loss is noted since the last visit), and lab work can all be used to help confirm diabetes. 

Lab work will include a blood glucose (BG) check, which is a direct measurement of blood sugar. Elevated blood glucose, along with the presence of glucose in the urine (which only happens when blood sugar levels are so high that glucose ‘spills over’ into the urine), are two things that can lead to a diagnosis of diabetes in dogs. 

Another blood test, called fructosamine, gives an idea of blood sugar over the last several weeks to help confirm whether BG has been elevated over time.

Additional diagnostics may be recommended, too. This includes a more comprehensive bloodwork panel, and possibly additional tests such as radiographs, to check a dog’s overall health and look for complications of diabetes.

If symptoms such as increased urination and thirst are noted, visit your vet as soon as possible. Early diagnosis is always best. If a dog is ill, they should see a veterinarian right away.

SEE ALSO: Digestive Issues in Dogs

What’s the Prognosis for a Dog With Diabetes?

Unfortunately, diabetes is not curable in dogs (true reversal of the condition is extremely rare). But with the right long-term management, many diabetic dogs can enjoy long, happy, healthy lives.

The good news is, dogs with well-managed diabetes don’t feel sick. They can enjoy normal lives with medication, close monitoring, and other measures for keeping their blood sugar under control.

Also, if a dog’s diabetes is successfully regulated, they can have a normal life expectancy compared to their non-diabetic canine friends.

Treatment of Diabetes in Dogs

Treatment usually involves these components and goals:

  • Daily insulin injections. Insulin can’t be given by mouth — so it must be given as a small shot under the skin, usually twice daily. While this might sound intimidating, most pet owners learn quickly, and most dogs tolerate the injections very well. A pup and their human family can get used to this new routine pretty quickly. There are different types of insulins out there. Your vet will choose the best one for your pup’s needs. At the beginning, trial and error is usually needed to establish the correct dose. A dog’s insulin dose must be increased gradually, since a dose that’s too high can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can be fatal. Your vet will have you watch for symptoms of hypoglycemia, such weakness, tremors, seizures, or loss of consciousness.
  • A diabetes-friendly diet. There are many options available, but common selections include a good quality protein (not necessarily ‘high protein’ diets), lower fat content, and an appropriate balance of fiber and complex carbohydrates to help with stabilizing blood sugar levels. Like insulin, choosing the best diet for each individual pup may require some trial and error at the beginning to see how their body responds.
  • Close monitoring, especially in the beginning. This may require regular vet visits for a blood glucose (BG) curve, which measures BG levels at regular intervals throughout the day to see how well BG is controlled and decide if the insulin dose needs to be adjusted.
  • Preventing complications such as urinary tract infections, cataracts, organ damage, and diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). DKA is a serious, potentially deadly complication of uncontrolled diabetes that happens because of changes to acid-base, fluid, and electrolyte regulation in the body.
  • Managing any concurrent conditions. For example, if a dog also has Cushing’s disease, that condition can make management of diabetes much more challenging. So it’s important to address both conditions.

Every pup is unique, so while these recommendations are common for most diabetic dogs, it’s important to check with your vet for the best specific treatments and guidelines for your individual furkid.

Day-to-Day Management of Dog Diabetes at Home

Managing a dog’s diabetes at home can require vigilance. It might feel like a lot at the beginning — but with a little practice, these new daily tasks become familiar habits that are easier to keep up with. 

Here are a few important things veterinarians commonly recommend for daily management at home:

  • Establish a regular routine and stick to it as best you can. Blood sugar can fluctuate with just about anything in life — for example, eating at a different time of day than usual or experiencing stress. Therefore, a predictable routine makes it easier for the body to stabilize blood sugar levels. 
  • Give insulin injections and any other medications as directed. 
  • Watch for any symptoms. Over time, you’ll get to know what’s normal for your diabetic pup and what’s not. If there’s a change (like increased urination), call your vet as soon as possible.
  • Blood glucose monitoring at home. With a little training and practice, many pet owners can learn to check their furry friend’s blood sugar levels at home. Your veterinarian will let you know how often this is recommended and which times of day are best.
  • Urine strips. Some veterinarians also recommend urine strips (small strips for urine testing), as they can detect when there is too much glucose in the urine.
  • Stick with the best diet for your pet. Avoid table scraps and unhealthy treats.
  • Establish an exercise routine. Moderate exercise can contribute to overall health and help regulate blood sugar.

Costs of Diagnosis and Treatment In Dogs With Diabetes

If it seems like you need to go in for a lot of vet visits when your dog is first diagnosed, don’t worry — the beginning is usually the most time-consuming and financially demanding stage of treatment. Once the best insulin dose and overall treatment plan for your pet are established, maintenance becomes much simpler and requires less check-ins.

The exact cost of treatment may vary depending where in the country (or in the world) you live. Asking your vet about the costs of all the different components of treatment and management can help you get an accurate idea of what to expect.

Costs in the beginning may include all the initial diagnostic tests, purchasing insulin and needles/syringes, any monitoring equipment (like a glucometer for checking BG at home), and a special diet. If a pet is experiencing complications of diabetes (such as a UTI or diabetic ketoacidosis), treatment of these conditions can increase costs, too.

As time goes on, the costs of managing diabetes become much lower, assuming diabetes has been successfully controlled. 

Long-term maintenance costs usually involve refills of insulin and syringes/needles (the frequency of refills depends on your dog’s insulin dose), your dog’s diabetic food, and rechecks with your veterinarian. The recheck schedule varies depending on your dog’s needs, but as a general rule of thumb, rechecks are less frequent the better controlled a dog’s diabetes is.

Additional factors to consider include special arrangements, such as making sure your dog gets their injections (and can be monitored by someone knowledgeable on what symptoms to watch for) if you need to go out of town. 

SEE ALSO: Can Dogs Eat Candy?

Prevention

Unfortunately, the most common type of diabetes in dogs (Type 1 diabetes) cannot be prevented.

However, there are a few things within a pet parent’s control. For example, spaying female dogs may help reduce their risk of developing diabetes.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle — including a healthy weight and staying active — can help with blood sugar regulation and allow for better overall health. 

Observing your dog for any symptoms, and seeking veterinary care early when it’s indicated, is also important. 

And finally, regular checkups and bloodwork with your pup’s veterinarian are important. Routine health monitoring can help to catch any health problems early, which may help prevent complications and improve treatment outcomes.

A diagnosis of diabetes may be scary. However, with the right knowledge and proper management of the condition, diabetic dogs can be very happy and enjoy years of quality time and activities with their favorite human companion!

SEE ALSO: What You Need to Know About Puppy Growth

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