By John Gilpatrick
Diabetes is an endocrine disorder that affects the body’s ability to create enough insulin to appropriately regulate blood sugar levels or the body’s ability to respond to normal levels of insulin. High blood sugar, which is the result of diabetes, can impact the body’s ability to function normally, leading to an increased risk of problems such as heart disease and stroke, among other problems.
According to a 2014 CDC report, 9.3 percent of the American human population is diabetic. In dogs, less is known, though Allison O’Kell, DVM, MS, DACVIM, says it’s one of the most common endocrine diseases in dogs.
“Overall, it is estimated that anywhere from 1 in 500 to 1 in 100 dogs will develop diabetes [in their lifetime],” she says, adding that the prevalence of diabetes appears to be increasing.
Continue reading for more about canine diabetes, its causes, treatment and what owners can do to prevent this disease:
Symptoms of Diabetes in Dogs
Ellen Behrend, VMD, PhD, DACVIM, lists drinking too much, urinating too much, a ravenous appetite and rapid or sudden weight loss among the most common symptoms of diabetes in dogs. “In the early stages, they may not be too severe, but once a patient is full-blown diabetic, they aren’t very subtle,” she says. Less obvious symptoms of diabetes include recurrent infections, weakness, poor coat quality, cataracts and seizures.
Humans can develop either type-1 or type-2 diabetes. In dogs, O’Kell says there are also two types but that they don’t quite line up exactly with what we know about the disease in men and women. Insulin deficiency diabetes (IDD) occurs when the cells in the pancreas that create insulin are destroyed. This is the most common type of diabetes in dogs. Insulin resistance diabetes (IRD), on the other hand, develops when other hormones present in the body prevent insulin from operating correctly. These problematic hormones can be produced by excess body fat, which is why overweight individuals are at higher risk of developing type-2 or insulin resistance diabetes.
Another one of these hormones, O’Kell says, is progesterone, which is produced during a pregnancy and after a heat cycle, in which dogs enter a phase called “diestrus” for about two months in which the body produces progesterone, similar to what occurs during an actual pregnancy.
As you might expect, some breeds are more pre-disposed than others. O’Kell lists the samoyed, miniature and toy poodle, pug, Tibetan terrier, cairn terrier, Yorkshire terrier, border terrier, Australian terrier, fox terrier, bichon frise, dachshund, and Siberian husky among the most likely breeds to develop diabetes over the course of their lives, though all dogs can develop the disease.
Another major factor is age. “Dogs most commonly develop diabetes at an age of five years or greater,” O’Kell says, adding that occasionally, dogs can become diabetic at a younger age or even be born with it. However, these cases are rare.
Treatment and Management of Diabetes in Your Dog
Insulin injections are a necessary part of diabetes treatment, O’Kell says. Once diagnosed, they should be done twice daily, but finding an appropriate dosage can be time-consuming.
“Your veterinarian will perform blood glucose curves, which involves taking a blood sugar sample every couple of hours starting as soon as possible after the morning dose of insulin and finishing as close to the evening dose as possible,” O’Kell says. These curves may need to be done every one to two weeks for several months to find the best possible dosage for your dog.
In addition to twice daily insulin injections, it is also very important that your dog’s diet, exercise and stress levels stay as consistent as possible. Significant changes to any of these parameters can dramatically affect the amount of insulin that your dog needs. Your veterinarian will come up with a detailed plan regarding the timing and dose of insulin as well as how to handle any potential problems that might develop. For instance, vets commonly recommend that insulin injections be given right after meals so that the dose can be lowered if the dog eats less than normal.
Because of the daily injections and lengthy process to find the right dosage, Behrend says canine diabetes is a “frustrating and intense disease that takes a lot of patience from the owner.” That said, it is treatable, and your dog can live for years with a high quality of life.
“If they live past first three months, they do really well. Excluding dogs that don’t make it through those first few months, the median survival is two years,” she says. “In fact, a lot won't even die of diabetes.”
Can a dog with diabetes get cured? It’s possible, but unlikely.
“Diabetes is usually permanent in dogs,” O’Kell says, though cases of IRD caused by pregnancy or diestrus can sometimes disappear if the dog is spayed very early after diagnosis. Even in these instances, however, there’s a risk for recurrence later in life, she says.
Canine Diabetes Prevention
Preventing diabetes in dogs is not easy. For many dogs, diabetes is in their genes, but spaying your female dog is one easy way to prevent IRD caused by diestrus or pregnancy. Obesity is often linked with diabetes, but in canines, O’Kell says, it’s not proven to be a direct cause. That said, obesity is believed to contribute to insulin resistance (among other problems), so preventing it may lead to more effective treatment.
"Avoiding overfeeding and regular exercise are the keys to maintaining a lean body weight," she says. "If you are not sure how much to feed your dog, your veterinarian can help you come up with a dietary plan to prevent obesity."
Think your dog has diabetes? Find out the top 10 signs of diabetes in pets.