When we think of diabetes, we tend to think of it as a human-only disease.
However, it is thought that one in 300 dogs have a diabetes diagnosis.
As pet experts believe it to be an underdiagnosed condition, the real numbers could actually be greater.
Diabetes is when the body struggles to produce insulin, which causes blood sugar levels to dangerously rise.
The most notable symptoms are excessive weight loss and increased thirst, though symptoms can be many.
There is no cure, although with good treatment, a well-maintained diet and exercise, dogs can still live long and happy lives.
It’s important to familiarise ourselves with the disease so we can spot the vital signs.
What is diabetes in dogs?
Canine diabetes is an incurable disease caused by the body not making enough – or stopping the production of – insulin.
The role of insulin is to help absorb glucose (or sugar) into the bloodstream. Glucose is then broken down and transported around the body to be used for energy and cell production.
When insulin levels are low, a dog cannot control the levels of sugar in their blood.
Whereas sugar would normally be broken down into energy, the lack of insulin makes the sugar unusable, which leaves surplus sugar in the body.
This can cause hyperglycaemia (elevated blood sugar levels) which can lead to many complications such as an enlarged liver, excessive thirst or hunger, obesity and depression.
Dogs can live with hyperglycaemia, although they are at risk of the condition becoming life-threatening if they develop an infection.
Is there an average age that dogs develop diabetes?
Diabetes in dogs can occur at any age, although most are aged between 4-14 years of age, with diagnosis averaging around 7-10 years.
Generally, though, it’s prevalent in middle to later age.
One of the reasons for this is that obesity is a risk factor.
Like with humans, a dog’s metabolism slows down as they age and so too their energy levels.
They are far less boisterous and playful as they get older.
They are also less likely to run long distances.
As dogs age, they are also more likely to develop diseases or infections such as heart disease or UTIs, which can either cause diabetes or affect their response to treatment.
How common is it for puppies to have diabetes?
Very uncommon. However, it is important to note dogs can develop diabetes at any age.
The good news is, if your dog does develop diabetes early, there is a great chance of keeping it at bay.
Regular insulin injections can regulate blood sugar levels, leaving them less vulnerable to hyperglycaemia.
Some puppies can even experience remission and recovery.
Despite the scarcity of a diagnosis, blood sugar levels in puppies do still fluctuate. They can range from high after a particular meal or low after not eating for a long period.
As diabetes in dogs is thought to be underdiagnosed, it’s important to get any change in your dog’s habits checked by a vet.
What are the main symptoms of diabetes?
Weight loss – lack of insulin means that sugar cannot be broken down and distributed through the bloodstream. Therefore, sugar is not transported to the liver and the rest of the body. This means the dog does not get enough calories and the body then uses its fat reserves to try and survive.
Chronic or recurring infections – high blood sugar levels leave the body prone to infections. The amount of glucose weakens the dog’s immune system, as well as making it easier for bacteria to grow.
Increased thirst – the dog’s excess sugar is excreted by the kidneys into the urine. The sugar then takes water along with it and in the process, the body needs to keep up with the sudden, excessive water loss.
Lethargy – if you notice slow movement or your dog napping more than normal, this could well be another symptom of the blood sugar levels.
Sweet breath – if your furry friend’s breath no longer tastes of ‘pup’ but gives off a fruity tang, this could also be another sign. This can quickly lead to ketoacidosis, which can be fatal.
Not having enough food or exercise can cause a ‘hypo’ – a critically low level of blood sugar. In such an instance the dog may become wobbly, vacant, very hungry or even collapse. The first thing you can do is rub something sweet on your dog’s gums (honey or jam, for example) and call an emergency vet.
It’s also advisable to carry a sachet of something sugary everywhere you go with your dog.
Are the symptoms in puppies any different?
No, the symptoms in puppies are not different. However, it is more likely the typical symptoms will be overlooked.
For example, a puppy with an excessive appetite for food is normal, due to the fact they grow so quickly. A puppy drinking a lot of water can be perfectly natural, as they are far more active. If the puppy has recently been spayed or neutered, frequent urination is a common side effect after treatment.
Female puppies can also develop insulin resistance while on heat or pregnant.
Therefore, if your puppy displays any symptoms, it’s advisable to get them tested several times to be on the safe side.
Can puppies be born with diabetes?
There is no evidence to suggest puppies can be born with diabetes. However, some dogs are genetically predisposed to develop diabetes, while for some it’s entirely based on factors such as diet or lack of exercise.
Diabetes is a complicated disease and there isn’t just one cause of diabetes in dogs.
If you feel your dog is at risk of diabetes, moving them onto a high-fibre diet is recommended, along with plenty of exercise. Ensuring your dog gets enough quality proteins and complex carbs also helps.
More than ever nowadays there are so many healthier food choices for dogs. You can buy plant-based dog food, as well as organic and high protein.
Why do puppies develop diabetes?
With certain breeds of dogs, diabetes could be pre-determined. However, the more common cause is generally related to diet and exercise.
The leading cause of diabetes is obesity. Quite simply, if your dog eats more than they exercise, they are naturally more at risk of diabetes.
An imbalanced diet is also a key cause of diabetes. Human titbits are a prime culprit in this. Human treats containing sugar or sweeteners send bloody sugar levels through the roof, as do high glycemic foods such as white rice or bread. These elevate blood sugar a lot quicker than other foods, which is potentially dangerous for a dog if fed regularly.
The best way to ensure your dog is at low risk for diabetes is by feeding them a healthy, balanced diet which is high in fibre and protein. Keeping your pooch active by taking them on lots of long walks and runs will also help greatly.
How can puppy diabetes be treated?
Following a diagnosis, your dog will typically be prescribed insulin ‘shots’ to ensure their blood sugar levels remain consistent. The insulin type and dose will need to be decided by your vet.
Most dogs will face injections twice a day, about 12 hours apart and always after a meal. You may also need to test your dog’s blood glucose levels at home by taking a small swab of blood with a tiny pinprick.
It’s very important to ensure your dog’s insulin levels are regulated as a spike could cause a multitude of long-term, and potentially life-threatening, conditions.
Your pet pooch’s weight will also need to be strictly controlled and will make their diabetes much easier to control.
It’s good to stick to a daily routine of consistent food and exercise in an effort to keep the diabetes under control. This also means any changes in blood sugar levels can be easily spotted.
It’s best to stick to pre-portioned tins of specialist dog food so that calories, as well as fat and fibre levels, can be easily monitored. It goes without saying too that you should avoid feeding your dog dinner table scraps.
Are certain breeds of dogs more likely to get diabetes?
Yes, certain breeds do in fact have a genetic predisposition to develop diabetes. The disease is more likely with the following breeds:
- Doberman Pinschers
- Golden Retrievers
- Labrador Retrievers
- Cocker Spaniels
- Toy Poodles
- German Shepherd Dogs
Other factors such as obesity and age can also add to the risk. For some reason, diabetes occurs in female dogs twice as often as in male dogs – especially with those who have been spayed.
Diabetes can also occur in pregnant dogs. This is called gestational diabetes. During the pregnancy blood sugar levels can rise hugely, although this is rare and seems to disappear once the dog has given birth.
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“Diabetes in Pets.” American Veterinary Medical Association, https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/petcare/diabetes-pets. Accessed 17 May 2022.
“How Do Pets Get Diabetes?” Cedar Pet Clinic Lake Elmo, 24 October 2019, https://www.cedarpetclinic.com/about-us/cedar-pet-clinic-blog/318-how-do-pets-get-diabetes. Accessed 17 May 2022.
Linder, Deborah E. “What’s the Best Diet for My Dog with Diabetes?” Tufts Vet Nutrition, 23 January 2020, https://vetnutrition.tufts.edu/2020/01/whats-the-best-diet-for-my-dog-with-diabetes/. Accessed 17 May 2022.