The Ultimate Guide to Caring for your Diabetic Dog

It is estimated that anywhere from 1 in 500 to 1 in 100 dogs will develop diabetes during their lifetime.  While the exact numbers are difficult to pinpoint, two things are certain: diabetes in dogs is a fairly common occurrence and diabetes is life-threatening when not managed properly.

I spoke to veterinarian Katie Ebers from Town and Country Animal Hospital in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to discuss the matter.  Dr. Ebers said, “Diabetes in dogs is common. It can be costly and time-consuming.  And it’s not something that needs to be taken lightly in regards to managing it. If your dog is diagnosed with diabetes then you have to be diligent.”

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Insulin, syringe, and medications.

Let’s take a closer look at the disease itself and the ways you can detect and manage your pet’s diabetes to ensure the best possible outcome.


What is diabetes?

To understand why managing your dog’s diabetes is so important, you must first understand the disease itself.

In a normally functioning system, your pet’s body will turn the food they eat into sugars, or glucose.  The pancreas produces insulin, which allows the glucose to enter into the body’s cells to be used as energy and helps maintain healthy levels of glucose in the blood.

Diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or the body is unable to use the insulin effectively.  When insulin isn’t being adequately produced or utilized, blood glucose levels are too high. Left untreated, high blood glucose levels can result in organ failure and other life-threatening complications.

What causes diabetes in dogs?

When asked about the causes and risk factors for diabetes, Dr. Ebers said, “There’s not one thing specifically that leads to diabetes.  There is a link between diabetes and diet so if your pet eats really fatty foods or is overweight that can result in diabetes.  There’s also potentially a genetic component.  Research is still in the works, but it’s more common in smaller dogs like Shih Tzus and poodles than in large breeds.
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Your dog’s diet may play a key role in their diagnosis. 

Signs and symptoms of diabetes in dogs

Some of the classic signs of diabetes that you may notice in your pet include:

  • Increased appetite while also experiencing weight loss
  • Increase in water intake
  • Frequent urination

Dr. Ebers explained that many of these symptoms may have other causes, but if you notice these it’s important to take your pet in for further investigation.

Types of diabetes in dogs

There are two main types of diabetes in pets, referred to as insulin dependent and insulin non-dependent.

  • Insulin dependent diabetes is when the pancreas no longer produces enough, or any, insulin.  This sometimes is referred to as “Type 1” diabetes. This is the most common type of diabetes in dogs.
  • Insulin non-dependent or “Type 2” diabetes refers to a situation where the pancreas is still producing insulin, but the body is unable to use the insulin effectively and needs to be supplemented in order to maintain healthy glucose levels.  Type 2 can occur in dogs, but it’s more commonly seen in cats.

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Cute brown poodle

In order to diagnose diabetes, your vet will perform bloodwork to check your dog’s blood glucose levels and a urinalysis to determine the presence of glucose in his or her urine.  “These two components together,” Dr. Ebers says, “give us the diagnosis of diabetes, along with the clinical symptoms.”

While it is possible for pets to develop diabetes at any stage in life, diabetes typically occurs in pets who are six years or older.  If your very young dog is experiencing symptoms consistent with diabetes then there’s a good chance that the symptoms may be caused by some other illness.  The only way to know for sure, however, is with a visit to your veterinarian.

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Small breeds are more prone to diabetes than large breeds.

Managing your pet’s diabetes

The most important things in regards to managing your dog’s diabetes are:

  • Insulin injections: A diagnosis of diabetes will typically require twice daily insulin injections, and it may take some time after the diagnosis to find the right dosage for your pet.  During this time it is especially important to be aware of any changes in your dog’s appetite, energy levels, and behavior and report any concerns to your veterinarian immediately.

Your vet will show you the proper way to give your pet’s insulin injections.  Insulin should be stored in your refrigerator and should never be used past its expiration date.

  • Diet: Dr. Ebers stressed the importance of diet in diabetic dogs, saying, “We like to change their diet, even if they’ve lost weight, to something that has a lower amount of carbs.  A couple of different companies make prescription diets that have moderate protein and are low carb and low fat. That way we’re helping them get their blood sugar regulated as well as giving them the insulin so their body can utilize the glucose that’s in their blood.”

Your vet can recommend a food and even treats that will work well for your dog, but maintaining a consistent feeding and insulin schedule is equally important in keeping your dog’s glucose levels stable.

  • Routine checkups: Your vet will likely want to see your pet more often after a diagnosis of diabetes to keep a close eye on the disease.  In addition to more frequent checkups, Dr. Ebers urges owners of diabetic pets to be more cautious when it comes to their pet’s health. “Essentially, diabetics are immunosuppressed so we like for owners to at least contact us and let us take a look at them if there are any concerns.  Really, if they just stop acting like themselves then it’s a good idea to call the vet.”

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Dog with vet staff 

Common health concerns in diabetic dogs

  • Cataracts: Diabetic dogs are predisposed to developing cataracts, a clouding of the lens in your pet’s eye, even if their diabetes is well managed.  Cataracts may eventually lead to total blindness and can only be corrected with surgery.
  • Urinary Tract Infections: Diabetics are also more susceptible to urinary tract infections, which can lead to diabetic ketoacidosis if left untreated.
  • Diabetic Ketoacidosis: Diabetic ketoacidosis, or DKA, is a serious complication of diabetes.  DKA occurs when the body has an insufficient amount of insulin, leading the body to break down fats for energy.  The result is a build-up of ketones in the bloodstream, which are toxic. Left untreated, DKA is fatal.

DKA can be caused by a variety of things, including urinary tract infections, changes in food, or any other illness your dog may experience.

Some symptoms of DKA include vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea, and overall malaise.  Dr. Ebers said, “If the pet is sick or if the original symptoms that led to the pet’s diagnosis return, that’s an indication that their diabetes is not regulated and they need to come in to see what’s going on.”

Life expectancy for diabetic dogs

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My pup Eevee’s 6th birthday celebration

While diabetes may seem like a scary diagnosis, Dr. Ebers wants people to know that it does not mean your pet can’t live a long, happy life.

“There’s some literature out there that specifically says that once your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, they have about 2 years left.  And that used to be the case, but we’ve gotten to where it doesn’t have to be a finite thing as long as it’s managed appropriately and the owner does what they need to do at home in regards to the insulin, diet, and keeping a really close eye on their pet.  We have several patients who have lived with diabetes for many years.”

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