Dog diabetes: what is it, how can you spot the signs, and how can you manage the disease?

Diabetes can be a daunting prospect for many dog owners, but if managed well, there’s no reason why a diabetic dog can’t live a happy and active life.

Diabetes is the result of excessive levels of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. Blood glucose levels are regulated by the production of insulin by the pancreas, so if something goes wrong with this production – or the body can no longer respond to insulin as effectively – diabetes develops.

Dogs of all breeds, genders, and ages can develop diabetes, but there are risk factors that affect some dogs differently.

Some dog breeds – including the Bichon Frise, German Shepherd, Labrador, West Highland White Terrier and Yorkshire Terrier – are predisposed to the disease.

Excess weight is also a risk factor. If your pet is overweight, his or her body will be less able to respond normally to insulin and this will increase the risk of diabetes.

Unspayed females, as well as middle-age or older dogs, are more likely to be affected as well.

Common symptoms of diabetes in dogs include:

  • Excessive thirst and drinking a lot of water
  • Highly lethargic, tired, and less active than normal
  • Weight loss
  • Thin, dry, and dull coat
  • Excessive urinating or having 'accidents' in the home

If you notice these symptoms in your dog, take them to the vet immediately. Early diagnosis is important, especially when insulin resistance is involved, as this exhausts the pancreas.

Dog diabetes is managed by lifelong insulin injections, as well as feeding and weight control. Unfortunately, dog diabetes can’t be cured, but daily insulin injections and regular monitoring of blood glucose levels will allow your dog to continue living a full and active life.

Insulin injections need to be administered twice daily at home, 12 hours apart, during your dog’s meal times. Your vet will guide you on how to do it and what dosage your dog will need. Many owners initially feel overwhelmed at the thought of injecting their dog twice daily, but almost all of them master this within a week.

Dogs with diabetes also need to follow a controlled daily diet that will help keep their blood glucose levels steady. A low-carb diet is usually recommended for diabetic dogs. Unfortunately, all treats and titbits are off the table.

Exercise will also need to be strictly controlled as it depletes blood glucose levels. Diabetic dogs require the same amount of exercise every day so their glucose levels don’t fluctuate too much.

Even with well-managed care, it’s common for diabetic dogs to develop cataracts, causing vision impairment and blindness.

Diabetes can also cause increased urinary tract infections in dogs. Excess glucose in urine can encourage bacteria to breed.

If left untreated, diabetes can lead to a state known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) – which is potentially fatal. DKA is caused when the body produces chemicals known as ketones in an attempt to create an alternative fuel source for the cells. Unfortunately, ketones are toxic and cause nausea.

Symptoms of DKA include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unsteadiness
  • Collapse

If you notice these symptoms, take your dog to the vet immediately. If left untreated, DKA can be fatal.

If blood glucose levels drop too low, usually as a result of too much insulin, your dog can develop hypoglycaemia. This can also be fatal if left untreated, so you need to take action immediately.

Symptoms of hypoglycaemia include:

  • Vomiting
  • Unsteadiness
  • Vacant expression
  • Loss of coordination
  • Trembling

A dog experiencing hypoglycaemia needs to be given sugar to bring its blood glucose levels back up. Rub honey or jam onto its gums and then contact your vet for further treatment. 

Caring for a diabetic dog requires a high level of commitment and strict adherence to a routine. Although well-managed care is hard work, your dog will still be able to live a long and happy life.

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