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What is diabetes in dogs?

Diabetes Mellitus in dogs is a disease where the body suffers from a shortage of insulin (Type I) or from an incorrect response from the cells to the insulin that is being produced (Type II). 

Insulin is produced in the pancreas and is released in response to the digestion of carbohydrates and protein. It triggers the liver and muscles to take up glucose from the bloodstream and convert it into energy. 

A lack of or resistance to insulin, therefore, prevents muscles and organs from converting glucose into energy, resulting in high blood glucose (hyperglycaemia). 

Insulin deficiency diabetes is the most common type of diabetes in dogs. It happens when the pancreas is damaged or not functioning properly. 

Insulin resistant diabetes can occur in older, obese dogs. Female dogs can also develop temporary insulin resistance while in heat or pregnant. We therefore usually advise neutering of all female dogs with diabetes. 


What causes diabetes in dogs?

  • Genetic predisposition: Some breeds of dogs are at higher risk of diabetes (e.g. Beagle, Poodle, Dachshund, Miniature Schnauzer).
  • Medical conditions: Most commonly Cushing’s disease, pancreatitis and obesity can lead to a diabetic diagnosis.

Symptoms of diabetes in dogs

  • Classic early symptoms are excessive thirst, increased urination and weight loss despite normal or increased appetite and food intake.
  • Advanced signs are more pronounced and can include sudden onset blindness due to cataract formation, loss of appetite, lack of energy, lethargy and vomiting. 

How to treat a dog with Diabetes

  • Diet: Dogs with diabetes should have a high-quality protein diet with fibre and complex carbohydrates to allow slow absorption of glucose. Prescription diets are designed to fulfil these needs. If this proves too costly, Chappie can be a suitable alternative for many dogs. 

Depending on your dog’s weight, the diet may also need to be relatively low-fat. Feeding times must be consistent and ideally an hour after insulin injection. If your dog can be a picky eater, we would then recommend feeding and injections are done at the same time. 

  • Exercise: To avoid sudden spikes or drops in glucose levels, it is important that diabetic dogs maintain a moderate but consistent exercise routine. 
  • Injections: Most diabetic dogs will require daily injections of insulin under the skin. We will teach you to do this to ensure you and your dog can manage at home. The injections must be given at the same time each day to avoid ‘piggybacking’ of doses, which can lead to low blood glucose levels(hypoglycaemia). Using a slightly different injection site each day will help prevent discomfort and reaction in the skin. If you miss a dose, continue as normal from the next dose; do not change the dose or give an extra one. Try not to miss doses regularly as it will become very difficult to stabilise your dog’s diabetes. 
  • Please note that oral diabetes treatments for humans are NOT suitable for dogs. 

It’s important to note that there is no cure for diabetes mellitus so treatment will be lifelong for your pet, requiring daily injections of insulin and regular feeding times to control the level of sugar in their blood.

Monitoring a dog with diabetes:

As an owner of a dog with diabetes, any of the changes listed below may signify the need for additional testing and/or adjustments in insulin dosage. It is very important that you do not make adjustments in the insulin dosage without first speaking to your vet as this could be dangerous for your pet.

  • Clinical signs: A reduction in thirst, urination and, stabilisation of weight can be good indicators of response to treatment. 
  • Blood glucose; This is something that if you are happy to monitor at home can be done using a blood glucose monitor. If you are thinking of doing this, please discuss with your vet or nurse the most reliable types to use for dogs. A small droplet of blood can give you an accurate idea of your pet’s blood glucose with minimal stress. 
  • Urine glucose: Regularly monitor your dog’s glucose levels using urine dipsticks, especially those that measure ketones can be very useful. Do bear in mind there will almost certainly be some glucose in a diabetic dog’s urine at certain times of the day, but it is still a useful indicator of changes in your dog’s condition.

What we will look for at the clinic:

  • Blood glucose curve: This is a serial measurement of your dog’s blood glucose, ideally over 24 hours, to monitor their response to insulin and their minimum and maximum blood glucose levels. This is the most accurate way to assess how well a dog is responding to their treatment and what adjustments may be required. 
  • Fructosamine: A blood test to evaluate your dog’s response to insulin therapy. It reflects your dog’s average glucose level over the past 7-14 days.
  • General health profile: This blood test will monitor for any other conditions which may be caused or affected by diabetes, such as electrolyte imbalances, kidney disease, liver disease and pancreatitis. 
  • Blood pressure monitoring: High blood pressure (hypertension) is associated with diabetes, so regular checks are important to avoid complications such as blindness, kidney failure, and stroke. 

Complicating factors with diabetes in dogs:

Sometimes it can take many weeks to get a dog’s diabetes under control. This can be frustrating, but we have to make any adjustments carefully over time and based on test results to ensure we are aware of any concurrent conditions. 

Some dogs do not respond as we would expect to insulin. This can be due to:

  1. Underlying health problems such as Cushing’s disease, steroid medication, female hormones, thyroid disease, pancreatitis.
  2. Problems with storage or administration of insulin.
  3. Prolonged or short duration of insulin effect. In this case, we may switch to an alternative type of insulin for your dog. 

Life expectancy for dogs with diabetes

Once diabetes is properly regulated, the dog’s prognosis is good, as long as treatment and monitoring are consistent. Most dogs with well-controlled diabetes live a good quality of life with few symptoms. However, diabetes can be complicated, underlying diseases are common and sadly some dogs do not respond well to treatment. 

Emergency conditions associated with diabetes:

If you think your dog has either of the following, contact your local Animal Trust surgery immediately for advice:

Ketoacidosis: This is a potentially life-threatening acute condition. Ketones are produced when cells don’t get enough glucose and fat is used for fuel instead. It can be triggered by stress, surgery, not eating, infection or an underlying health condition. Your dog will exhibit signs like lethargy, vomiting, dehydration, rapid breathing and sweet-smelling breath. 

Hypoglycaemia: This is critically low blood sugar. Symptoms include increased hunger, disorientation, confusion, weakness, low energy, loss of consciousness, seizures, restlessness and tremors. This may occur due to an overdose of insulin, increased use of glucose (exercise, stress) or a decreased intake of food to counteract a normal insulin dose. If your dog is conscious, encourage them to eat some food and then contact us. If your dog will not eat, is on the point of collapse or is unconscious, you can put glucose gel or honey/ syrup on their gums and then contact us.

If you’re concerned your pet is could be showing signs of diabetes, please contact your local Animal Trust surgery. 


Further Reading

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