Symptoms & Treatment of Diabetes in Dogs

Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects not only people, but also dogs, and other animals such as cats, horses, pigs, and apes. And while diabetes in people can often be managed with drugs and dietary changes, canine diabetes requires lifelong insulin injections and careful monitoring of blood sugar.

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Cases of canine diabetes, which is typically type 1 and known as diabetes mellitus, insulin-deficiency diabetes, or "sugar diabetes," have more than tripled since 1970 with one in every 160 dogs affected. Essentially a disease of the pancreas, diabetes occurs when this vital organ cannot produce enough of the hormone insulin to metabolize food for energy. In contrast, insulin-resistance diabetes mostly occurs in older, obese dogs and is when the pancreas produces some insulin, but the dog's body is not properly utilizing it.

Is diabetes in dogs curable?

In a nutshell, diabetes mellitus (mellitus is a Latin term that means "honey sweet," and reflects the elevated sugar levels the condition produces in urine and blood) means that your dog cannot utilize glucose, the body's fuel, leading to high levels of sugar in the blood. To curtail the negative domino effect of diabetes, insulin replacement by daily injections is required to keep the disease regulated, thus avoiding further damage to the dog's body.

And although, sadly, diabetes is incurable, the good news is that your dog's diabetes can be successfully managed with ongoing, dedicated care. But keep in mind, if your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, you will play a vitally important role in keeping your best friend healthy and happy for the rest of her life. Of course, you do that anyway. But caring for a diabetic dog is a huge additional investment in time and attention, from the twice daily administering of insulin shots to monitoring often subtle, yet significant changes in the condition over time.

The interplay of glucose, insulin, and diabetes

In the healthy dog, the nutrients in food morph into glucose through a series of complex biochemical processes, then travel throughout the body via the bloodstream feeding the various organs that require it for fuel. The pivotal role of insulin in this conversion can be compared to that of gatekeeper — think of it as the hormone in charge of fuel delivery.

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Produced in the pancreas, a small organ tucked next to the stomach, insulin makes the magic happen. It's the essential link to keeping everything in your dog's body functioning optimally. It directs or "tells" the cells, "grab the glucose and other nutrients in the bloodstream and use them as fuel." Insulin also aids the process by opening pores in the cell walls to allow the glucose access.

But what happens when abnormal chemical reactions disrupt your dog's metabolism due to inflammation and malfunction of the pancreas and the glucose-insulin connection stops working? Without insulin replacement, this abnormal blood chemistry creates a negative chain reaction, as follows:

  • Unable to utilize the glucose or sugar from food as fuel, the muscle cells and certain organs that rely on glucose go into starvation mode.
  • Diabetes occurs as the body starts breaking down its own stored fat and proteins to use as an alternative energy source.
  • The high level of sugar in the bloodstream has a toxic effect and ultimately causes multi-organ damage, including the kidneys, heart, blood vessels, nerves, and eyes.

Clinical signs of diabetes

Watch for these telltale signs of diabetes in your dog. Like every other disease, early detection is key.

  • Weight loss. Unable to use glucose for fuel, when the body uses its own fat and protein, it leads to weight loss, one of the first clinical signs of diabetes you may notice in your dog, despite normal or even increased food consumption.

  • Increased thirst and increased urination as the body tries to eliminate the excess sugar by sending it out through the urine. The dog will be thirsty because he is continually losing water, which bonds to the sugar flowing out in the urine.

  • Increased appetite because the body is not efficiently converting the nutrients in the food, which causes excessive hunger to the point your dog may seem ravenous.

  • Symptoms of advanced diabetes include:

    *   Loss of appetite.

Diagnosing diabetes

Your veterinarian will diagnose diabetes by reviewing your dog's history and typical clinical signs, a blood test which may reveal a persistently high level of glucose, and a urinalysis which will indicate the presence of glucose in the urine.

Treatment of diabetes in dogs

Generally, if diabetes is not advanced, treatment entails usually twice per day injections of insulin. For many owners of newly diagnosed, diabetic dogs, the fear of giving a needle to their dog is overwhelming. What if I hurt him? What if I hit the wrong spot? I hate needles, how will I ever do this?These questions and many more may swirl through your mind but your veterinarian or a vet tech will show you how to safely administer the life-sustaining doses that will allow your dog to enjoy a decent quality of life. And amazingly, it soon becomes second nature. Before you know it, you'll find it's a quick and easy routine that's not the least bit scary at all, for either you or your dog.

For many diabetic dogs, a regular adult dog diet is all that's required. However, nutrition is important and consistency in feeding. Your dog needs to be fed the same food in the same amount on the same schedule every day. Your vet will advise if any dietary modifications are required.

Visits to your vet will increase for the ongoing monitoring of your dog's blood sugar levels.

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Long-term prognosis for the diabetic dog

Being consistent with your insulin doses and careful, regular monitoring of blood sugar is key throughout your diabetic dog's life. When you have his diabetes under control, he should enjoy a good quality of life with few disease symptoms.