By Paula Fitzsimmons
When pet parents first find out their beloved dog has diabetes, it can provoke a sense of dread. Will her lifespan be shortened? How will it impact her quality of life? The good news is that with routine veterinary care and sound nutrition management, dogs with diabetes can thrive.
Symptoms of diabetes may include excessive urination, extreme thirst, unexplained weight loss, and lack of grooming. If not managed, diabetes can lead to an array of health problems, such as anorexia, depression, recurrent infections, and even death.
Most diabetic dogs have the Type 1 variety, meaning their pancreas can’t produce insulin, the hormone that regulates glucose. This renders the body incapable of converting glucose to energy, resulting in excess sugar in the blood.
Daily insulin injections are critical to balancing blood sugar, explains Dr. Nancy Scanlan, a veterinarian in Mount Shasta, California, and executive director of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Foundation (AHVMF). “Holistic medicine can help stabilize them and improve their metabolism, but they need insulin because they can’t produce it anymore.”
A healthy and consistent diet is also essential for diabetes management. “Most vets will agree the food your pet eats and the portions and timing of such meals will drastically affect the capabilities of insulin to work efficiently and effectively,” says Dr. Michael Lund, veterinary staff manager at ASPCA in New York City.
To meet your pet’s special dietary needs, consider these vet-recommended nutritional guidelines for diabetic dogs. Remember that like humans, dogs are individuals, which makes it imperative to discuss any dietary changes with your vet.
“The most important factor for canine diabetes is consistency in feeding management, since insulin therapy is dosed according to the diet,” says Dr. Jennifer Larsen, associate professor of clinical nutrition at the University of California-Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
A consistent feeding schedule can help you determine how effective the insulin therapy is, explains Scanlan. “There are different forms of insulin and if one doesn’t work well, another one might. If you keep changing food type, amount given, or time of day, you won’t know if it’s an insulin problem or a food problem.” It’s also imperative, she says, to give your dog insulin at the same time every day.
Owners who make food available to their dog at all times should reconsider their feeding strategy, says Dr. Susan Wynn, a veterinarian with BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Sandy Springs, Georgia.
“The dog that’s free-feeding cannot be monitored closely, so you won't know when or even if it's eating. That's dangerous if giving insulin,” she warns. “These dogs need to be fed on schedule, right before their insulin injections, so you know the dose to give depending on how much the dog has eaten.”
Caring for a diabetic dog means embracing a diet higher in fiber and lower in fat, says Lund.
“Dietary fiber not only helps dogs feel full upon finishing a meal, but also slows the uptake of sugars into the bloodstream and creates a more controllable blood glucose level for most diabetic patients,” Lund explains.
Diabetic dogs are more prone to pancreatitis, so feeding a low-fat diet can reduce their risk of developing this painful condition. (Pancreatitis is often an inciting cause of diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious complication of diabetes.)
Both maintenance and veterinary therapeutic diets usually contain adequate amounts of fiber, says Larsen, a board-certified vet specializing in nutrition.
A diabetic dog’s diet should also be lower in carbohydrates and simple sugars. “Limiting sugars helps maintain a more natural blood glucose curve, and gives injectable insulin a chance to maintain blood glucose levels,” Lund says. “It also helps keep insulin dosages as low as possible.”
While simple sugars are usually not present in dog foods (even homemade ones), maintenance dog foods do contain between 30 and 70 percent carbohydrates, a major source of sugar, Scanlan says. For this reason, she recommends looking for foods “low in simple carbohydrates” rather than “low in simple sugars.”
Pet parents should steer clear of any dog food that lists carbohydrate sources as the first ingredient on the label, Lund says. That’s because ingredients are listed in order of predominance, from highest to lowest amount. “Stay away from corn, wheat, potatoes, and rice wherever possible,” he advises. Healthy whole-grains such as barley and sorghum are lower on the glycemic index and are typically considered moderate in sugar content.
A grain-free diet doesn’t necessarily mean it’s carbohydrate-free. “Grain-free diets simply omit grains as an ingredient,” explains Larsen. “They are not necessarily lower in carbohydrates. Overall, grain-free diets are good pet food marketing but aren’t needed for most pets.”
In addition, grains may provide nutritional benefits, she says. “Whole grains such as barley contain B-vitamins, as well as important trace minerals such as magnesium, manganese, and selenium.”
There is a common misconception that a grain-free diet will be lower in sugars and starches, Wynn says. “This is generally not the case, as the starches are simply supplied from another source, like potatoes or other starchy roots/tubers.”
Lund recommends checking labels for the percentage of listed ingredients, then comparing them to a diet proven for diabetic dogs. “The grain-free foods can often have very high caloric values and one must look at the label and feed accordingly—much smaller portions are indicated in most instances.”
Since consistency is so critical to diabetes treatment, your vet may prescribe a therapeutic diet. “Prescription foods are manufactured to be very consistent batch to batch, while over-the-counter foods can vary,” says Wynn, a board-certified nutrition specialist. “If regulating a diabetic patient becomes a problem, switching to a prescription diet can really help.”
Therapeutic diets are also recommended for weight loss, she adds. “If a diabetic dog is overweight, it’s critical to lose excess weight because this leads to insulin resistance and difficulty in regulation.”
These diets are not only lower in calories but also higher in other nutrients, Wynn explains. “This is important because if you just reduce the amount of normal maintenance foods to force weight loss, you reduce all nutrients and a deficiency can result. Weight loss diets have enhanced levels of nutrients so this is less likely to occur.”
Lund says most foods designed for weight loss contain more fiber, fewer simple sugars, and less fat. This is important because, “maintaining a healthy body condition allows for the insulin to be more tightly regulated.”
A vet may also prescribe a therapeutic diet if a dog has another disease in addition to diabetes, Larsen says. “Depending on the disease, the diet may have specific nutritional strategies, such as fat restriction (for pancreatitis) or controlled concentrations of phosphorus and sodium (for chronic kidney disease).”
Just because your dog is diabetic, doesn’t mean you can’t spoil her. But owners should be cautious about the types of treats they give their canine companion.
“Most dog treats on the market are packed with carbohydrates,” Lund says. “Treats should be kept to a minimum to control blood glucose levels.” He recommends opting for freeze-dried meat sources with no additives or fillers. “Crunchy cookie treats will most likely have high carbohydrate/sugar content, so be sure to check the label for ingredients.”
Fresh vegetables are a good option, according to Wynn. “Veggies are low-calorie, low-glycemic treats,” she says. “They contain antioxidants, which could help mitigate some of the cellular and tissue damage that occurs if diabetes isn't well regulated.” Scanlan recommends avoiding vegetables containing a lot of starches—like corn, peas, and potatoes—since they can cause a blood sugar spike. (Do not feed your dog onions or garlic, as they can cause hemolytic anemia.)
Certain fruits are fine, provided they don’t contain a lot of sugar, Scanlan says. “Berries, especially purple colored ones, are the best option. They have less sugar and more antioxidants than other fruits. Diabetics have problems with inflammatory processes, so anything with antioxidants can be helpful.”
Larsen recommends UC-Davis’s treat guidelines for dogs as a resource. Remember that treats are not the mainstay of any diet: “Keep to the 10 percent rule (no more than 10 percent of the total daily intake from treats and snacks), and maintain consistency, as it is important for dogs with diabetes.”
A balanced blood sugar level and healthy body weight are paramount to keeping diabetes under control. With proper veterinary care, a consistent feeding and insulin schedule, and foods that help balance blood sugar, you can continue to enjoy your dog’s company for years to come.