Currently in the UK, nearly 5 million people are living with diabetes – that’s around one person in every thirteen. But did you know that diabetes is also fairly common in our pet dogs with an estimated one in three hundred dogs being affected? This number is rising year on year as seen in one report from America that found that between 2006 and 2016, the number of cases of canine diabetes rose by 79.7%. This begs the question, why do dogs get diabetes and what can we do about it?

What is diabetes?

Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus to give it it’s proper name, is an endocrine disorder where the body is unable to process sugars correctly, leading to high levels of glucose in the blood. This can disrupt many normal bodily functions and can have serious effects on many organs. In humans, there are two recognised forms of diabetes, Type 1 and Type 2.

  • Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease where the body’s own immune system attacks the cells within the pancreas which produce insulin and prevent them from  functioning. Insulin is the hormone needed to regulate blood sugar, so without it, glucose levels in the blood rise. It is not known exactly why this destruction happens and there is currently no cure. Sufferers have to inject themselves with insulin every day in order to control the disease. 
  • Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas either doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the body’s cells don’t respond to it. This lack of response is known as insulin resistance and one of the most common causes is being overweight. Treatment is aimed at adopting a healthy lifestyle and losing weight. But sometimes oral medications or insulin injections may be needed. 

The diabetes that we see in dogs is most similar to type 1 diabetes but both forms can occur. Interestingly, diabetes in cats is more like type 2 diabetes. And just as in humans, being overweight can be a risk factor. 

Symptoms of diabetes

The classic and most obvious symptoms of diabetes in dogs are drinking more and urinating more. This is usually very noticeable and a drastic change to what is normal for them. You will also often find they have an increased appetite but will conversely lose weight. If your dog is showing any combination of these symptoms, it would definitely be worth a vet visit. 

In some cases, dogs can also start to become weak, vomit, develop recurrent infections, lose coat quality, develop cataracts or even progress to having seizures. 

Diagnosis of diabetes

Initially, your vet will likely want to check a urine sample from your dog. They are looking for the presence of glucose which is not normally found in the urine but which is excreted when blood sugar levels are too high. They can also look for ketones in the urine. Which if present, indicate very high blood sugar or a prolonged increase in blood sugar. 

If glucose is present, your vet will usually want to check a sample of your dog’s blood, again looking for excessive amounts of glucose. Blood glucose levels can temporarily rise after feeding or due to stress. But in cases of diabetes, they will be constantly elevated. In order to differentiate between a temporary rise in blood sugar and a prolonged rise in blood sugar, the blood can also be tested for fructosamine levels. This gives an indication of the ‘average’ blood glucose over the past 2-3 weeks. If the blood glucose has only risen temporarily, the fructosamine will be normal. But in cases of diabetes, where the blood sugar levels are persistently elevated, there will also be an increase in the fructosamine. 

Treatment of diabetes

If your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, don’t lose hope – it can usually be easily treated and brought under control. The mainstay of treatment is giving your dog insulin injections twice daily. Your veterinary practice will be able to teach you how to do this and talk you through any concerns you may have. The initial few weeks are the stabilisation period. During this time, your dog will need repeated blood samples taken in order to establish the correct dose of insulin for them. Once the correct dose has been found, sampling will only need to be done occasionally for monitoring or if symptoms have changed. It is also important that your dog’s exercise regime and diet remain consistent so as not to cause spikes or dips in glucose levels. 

So why do dogs get diabetes in the first place?

The short answer is no one knows, but there are some factors that make it more likely to occur:

  • Breed – diabetes is often linked to genetics. So some breeds appear to be more prone to it than others, including Poodles, Bichon Frises, Samoyeds, and Miniature Schnauzers. 
  • Age – diabetes is more commonly seen in dogs over the age of 5, and especially in middle aged or senior dogs.
  • Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) – diseases such as pancreatitis can, if severe or recurrent, affect the pancreas’ ability to produce insulin, thereby causing a diabetic state
  • Neutering status – entire female dogs are more likely to develop diabetes than neutered female dogs. However this tends to be more like a type 2 diabetes as the female hormones can cause the body’s cells to become resistant to insulin. 
  • Obesity? – currently there is no evidence that overweight dogs are more likely to develop diabetes than normal weight dogs. But being overweight can leave them prone to secondary conditions, like pancreatitis, which in turn can cause diabetes. 
  • Steroids? – steroids, either when given as a drug or in conditions such as Cushing’s Disease where the body produces too much of its own steroids, can also cause insulin resistance and could potentially lead to diabetes.

Can we prevent diabetes?

If a dog is genetically predisposed to get diabetes, there is no known way to change that risk. However, by targeting the risk factors listed above, prevention of a ‘type 2’ diabetes, or an insulin resistant diabetes, may be possible.

Possible approaches include:

  • Neutering female dogs, usually 3-4 months after their first season.
  • Feeding a healthy diet – high fat foods can predispose to pancreatitis and obesity.
  • Ensuring they get plenty of exercise, again helping to control their weight. 
  • Being on the lookout for new symptoms, especially changes to appetite, thirst and urination and report them to your vet. 

Diabetes is often a lifelong condition. But with prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment, dogs – and owners – can still live a full and happy life.

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