Could Your Dog Have Diabetes?
Canine diabetes is one of the most common endocrine diseases affecting older dogs. Know the signs so you can seek veterinary treatment right away.
By Katie Boyce Updated December 06, 2022
Canine diabetes is a serious disease and one that's on the rise. Melanie Puchot, DVM, DACVIM, and board-certified veterinary internal medicine specialist at NorthStar VETS Veterinary, Emergency, Trauma, and Specialty Center explains everything you need to know about this metabolic disease, from the causes and symptoms to dog diabetes risk factors and treatment options.
What Is Canine Diabetes?
Like their human counterparts, dogs get diabetes when their bodies no longer produce or process insulin at a normal rate. Insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas, is responsible for the regulation of glucose absorption and blood sugar levels.
In other words: glucose creates fuel for the body, and insulin is the delivery system that transports it. Without insulin, glucose cannot reach cells within the body. This triggers the body to produce more glucose, which then builds up in the bloodstream and causes health issues.
Also similar to humans, there are different types of diabetes in dogs. According to Puchot, however, one is much more common than the other. "Diabetes mellitus in dogs is most closely associated with Type I diabetes in people. This means that the pancreas has damage and fails to produce insulin. There are rare times when it is similar to Type II diabetes, meaning it is secondary to drugs or severe inflammation," she explains. In this second type, the dog's body produces insulin, but the body doesn't use it as it should.
Either way, it's a serious health concern. A dog with diabetes requires prompt veterinary treatment, so it's important to know the signs and seek help right away.
Common Signs of Diabetes in Dogs
If you're wondering if your dog could have diabetes, there are many symptoms to look out for. Some early signs of dog diabetes include:
Unexplained weight loss
Lethargy or fatigue
These are the most typical symptoms, but there may be others. "Less commonly, we will see changes such as neurologic weakness with a change in their gait," Puchot explains.
These symptoms can often overlap with other endocrine diseases in canines. For instance, Cushing's disease and diabetes in dogs can present similarly but with some key differences. For example, while not a typical symptom of dog diabetes, panting is a common early sign of Cushing's disease.
If your dog isn't quite acting herself, it's important to schedule a visit with your vet to diagnose the underlying issue and begin proper treatment.
Causes of Canine Diabetes
The exact frequency of diabetes in dogs is not known, but research shows it's a rising trend. Banfield Pet Hospital's annual State of Pet Health Report surveyed 2.5 million dogs in their 2016 report, which analyzed 10-year trends of common diseases, and found that cases of canine diabetes increased by nearly 80 percent since 2006. It's also estimated that one in every 300 dogs will develop diabetes in their lifetime.
While veterinarians aren't completely sure what causes diabetes, it's common enough to identify some common risk factors, including:
Age: Most dogs diagnosed with diabetes are middle-aged, approximately between six and nine years old (though the exact definition of "middle age" can depend on breed).
Sex: Female dogs are more likely to get diabetes than their male counterparts. However, males (particularly neutered males) are prone to diabetes, too.
Breed: While diabetes can affect all breeds, research shows that some breed types might be more susceptible, including:
Obesity: Just like with humans, excess body weight is a significant risk factor for diabetes.
Other medical conditions: Cushing's and diabetes in dogs are closely linked, as are other endocrine conditions such as pancreatitis.
To protect your dog's overall health, be sure to make regular appointments with your vet, avoid table scraps and sugary sweets, and ensure your pup gets the exercise she needs.
Diabetes Complications in Dogs
If not properly managed, diabetes can cause serious health issues. Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is often caused by an overdose of insulin. Low blood sugar levels can cause brain damage and other life-threatening complications, so it's important to monitor your dog's blood sugar regularly.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia in dogs include:
Trembling or shaking
Loss of coordination or consciousness
Acting disoriented or confused
Sudden weakness or fatigue
Nervousness or sudden agitation
If your diabetic dog is experiencing any of these symptoms, get her to the vet right away as it may be an emergency.
Another common complication of dog diabetes is cataracts, which can cause blindness quickly, often before pet owners even realize their dog has diabetes. In fact, as many as 75 percent of dogs with diabetes develop cataracts, and 75 percent of those dogs will lose vision within a year if left untreated. If your dog's eyes suddenly appear cloudy or have a blue-ish gray tint over the pupil, contact your vet for diagnosis and treatment options.
Finally, a serious complication of diabetes in dogs is diabetic ketoacidosis. When the body can't access glucose due to diabetes, it begins to break down fat stores as a way to fuel the body's cells. However, this creates "ketones," a poisonous byproduct that can quickly result in serious health complications.
In fact, ketoacidosis is sometimes part of the final stages of dog diabetes. "Advanced stages of diabetes will lead to profound weight loss and specifically muscle mass loss. They can become very weak as well from muscular and neurologic changes. Finally, they will develop the diabetic ketoacidosis complication which will lead to vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, and decreased appetite," Puchot explains. These symptoms, along with tremors or seizures and abnormal breathing patterns, could be signs your dog with diabetes is dying.
If you see any of these signs in your dog, seek emergency veterinary treatment immediately.
Is It Possible to Treat Diabetes in Dogs?
There's no cure for diabetes. Still, your veterinarian can prescribe a treatment plan to help manage the disease. Dogs with diabetes mellitus typically require two injections of insulin every day to stabilize their blood sugar levels. A dog diabetes diet plan is also a key part of treatment, as consistent feedings help keep blood sugar levels predictable and maintain a healthy weight.
It's important to work closely with your vet to tweak your dog's treatment plans. Consistency is key, and while a missed dose of insulin might be tolerated by the body, it's very important to administer injections regularly. Diet and exercise are key components of a healthy life for a diabetic dog, but they aren't enough on their own. Attempts at treating dog diabetes without insulin are not recommended and are potentially life-threatening.
How Long Can a Dog Live with Diabetes?
"Without insulin therapy or treatment for diabetes mellitus, dogs can develop life-threatening complications such as diabetic ketoacidosis, which can lead to multi-organ failure," Puchot explains. "This can happen quickly and is seen within one to two months after development of diabetes." So if your dog is showing any symptoms, it's important to schedule a dog diabetes test with your vet right away.
But diabetes doesn't have to hold your pup back. In fact, dog diabetes life expectancy stats are encouraging. "When properly treated and monitored, dogs can do excellent with diabetes mellitus, have a full life, and normal life expectancy," Puchot says.
While there's no surefire formula to safeguard your dog from a diabetes diagnosis, there are plenty of ways to give your pup a full, happy, life. Feed her recommended servings of wholesome food, establish regular exercise routines, and schedule a visit with your vet to ensure she's healthy and up-to-date on all vaccinations.
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