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Diabetes in dogs: From prevention to treatment

Much like their human counterparts, the incidence of diabetes in canines is steadily on the rise. A study by Banfield Pet Hospital of 2.5 million dogs in the U.S. found that diabetes diagnoses increased by 79.7 percent from 2006 to 2015—that’s 23.6 cases for every 10,000 dogs. While the numbers may seem alarming, it’s important to remember that there are several things you can do to prevent this chronic disease or effectively manage it so your dog can lead a quality life.

Diabetes is a lack of the insulin hormone (Type I diabetes) or an inadequate response to insulin (Type II diabetes). In Type I, or insulin-deficiency diabetes—the most common form of diabetes in dogs—the pancreas is damaged and can no longer produce insulin.

Type II diabetes, usually found in older or obese dogs, occurs when the body isn’t using insulin the way it should. The cells aren’t responding to the insulin’s message, so glucose builds up in the blood, causing hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar. Without insulin to convert the glucose into fuel, hyperglycemia acts like a poison to the organs and can lead to damaged kidneys, eyes, heart, blood vessels and nerves.

The good news is that you and your pet care providers can help your pup manage this disease so they can live a long, happy life. However, early diagnosis is important and daily care is key. Here’s what you need to know.

Symptoms to look for

Early on, you should be on the lookout for excessive thirst and increased urination. You may notice more accidents occurring around the house as your dog’s body attempts to get rid of the excess sugar through their urine.

Also, while seemingly at odds, common early symptoms include increased appetite and weight loss. This happens because the body’s cells aren’t getting the glucose they need, causing your pup to look for it in food. But because they can’t easily convert this food into nutrients, the net result is weight loss.

As the disease advances, you may notice:

  • lack of energy

  • vomiting

  • depression

When left unchecked, diabetes can result in:

  • cataracts

  • enlarged liver

  • urinary tract infections

  • seizures

  • kidney failure

Risk factors for diabetes

There are several factors that predispose certain dogs to diabetes. A study published in the Veterinary Journal in 2003 found that mixed breeds were more susceptible to the disease. However, among pure breeds, pugs, dachshunds, beagles, Bichon Frises, miniatures poodles and fox terriers were more likely to develop diabetes.

Female and neutered male dogs are also more prone to developing the disease, with unspayed females twice as likely to receive a diagnosis than males. Advanced age and obesity also heavily factor as potential risks for development. Other risk factors for diabetes include long-term steroid use, Cushing’s disease, chronic pancreatitis and a diet high in fat.

Diagnosis

As soon as you suspect something might be wrong, schedule a visit with your veterinarian. A diagnosis is often as simple as a urinalysis that looks for excessive glucose in the urine. Blood tests may be administered to look for other signs of diabetes, including high liver enzymes and electrolyte imbalances.

If your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, your vet will likely take blood samples to get a serial blood glucose concentration curve. This is obtained by repeatedly measuring glucose levels in blood over the course of several hours and will help your vet decide the amount of insulin necessary, the dosage and dosing schedule. 

Diabetes treatment and prevention

Treatment and prevention is often a multi-pronged approach, with the goal of keeping blood glucose levels between 65 and 120 mg/dl.

Diet: There’s still a lot of research being done on what diet is best for dogs with diabetes. However, most veterinarians currently recommend a diet that’s low in fat but high in fiber and complex carbs, which helps to slow the absorption of glucose. Using food that contains a high-quality protein is also key. Vets often advise against letting your pup consume refined carbohydrates, which can also help to prevent the onset of diabetes.

Exercise: Much like humans, exercise can help your dog lose weight and cut down on the amount of glucose they have in their blood. But too much exercise can drop levels dangerously low. A moderate, consistent exercise program is key to keeping your pup in tip-top shape.

Insulin: Typically, you’ll have to administer one or two injections a day under your pup’s skin. There are several kinds of insulin on the market, each one varying in how quickly they kick in, when they peak, how long they last and how much they cost. Your vet will decide which one is the best fit for your dog, and you’ll be shown how to administer it quickly and painlessly.

Spaying your female dog can also help prevent diestrus, which has been shown to be a risk factor for diabetes.

How to care for your dog at home

There are several things you can do to help ease your dog’s symptoms at home. Your vet will work with you to create an optimal at-home treatment plan that might include monitoring your dog’s blood glucose levels using an AlphaTRAK meter and the right combination of diet, exercise and medication, usually in the form of daily insulin shots.

Keeping a consistent diet is key to maintaining your pup’s health. Avoid feeding your pet table scraps and snacks. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for signs that your dog may have received too much insulin. If you notice shaking, dizziness, lethargy or seizures, take your dog to the vet immediately.

While rightfully concerning, a diabetes diagnosis can be successfully managed. With the help of your vet, you can make sure your pup has many more happy and healthy years ahead of them.

Read next: 10 signs of kidney failure in dogs

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