Approximately 8 in 25 dogs are diagnosed with diabetes every year. Experts say that the figures may actually be higher because of under-reporting or even the failure of some pet parents to recognize the signs and symptoms of canine diabetes mellitus. This is because the manifestations of this metabolic disorder can be mimicked by other health conditions. This allows some pet parents to overlook the fact that their beloved pooches may already be diabetic. Increasing one’s knowledge about the disease, its causes, risk factors, and classic manifestations should help identify the most appropriate treatment and management of canine diabetes.
What is Canine Diabetes?
Diabetes mellitus in dogs is not that very different from the diabetes mellitus affecting millions of individuals all over the world. This health condition involves a very complex process that is best defined by a problem in insulin. Just like diabetes in humans, diabetes in dogs can come in two forms: one that is caused by the absence of insulin and another one brought about by an inadequate or inappropriate response to insulin.
Since the common denominator in both types of diabetes is insulin, it should be worth our while to understand what insulin really is.
Insulin is a hormone that is produced by highly-specialized cells located in the pancreas. This hormone is primarily responsible for transporting glucose – the principal energy molecule by cells – from the blood and into the cells. Insulin also serves other functions. It stimulates the muscles, liver, and adipose tissues (or fatty tissues) to take in any of the excess glucose not utilized by the cells. Glucose is stored either as glycogen in the muscles and liver or as fatty acids in adipose tissues.
When the cells are hungry – they need energy – and your dog is still several hours from its next meal, insulin will facilitate the release of glycogen from the liver and muscles for conversion back into glucose. At the same time, insulin will also stimulate the adipose tissues to release fatty acids for use as fuel. There is no need to convert fatty acid back into glucose since the former is already an excellent source of energy for cells.
Unfortunately, if there is no insulin then glucose is not utilized by the cells. They are not transported inside the cells. These are not converted into glycogen and fatty acids, too. As such, the cells will have to utilize other forms of energy molecules to replace glucose. The liver will produce ketones as energy replacement. Sadly, this can also lead to the formation of ketoacidosis. The absence of insulin production defines Type 1 diabetes.
If there is insulin but the dog’s body is not really responding that well to the hormone, experts call this phenomenon as insulin resistance. It is the hallmark of Type 2 diabetes mellitus. This is perhaps the most common type of diabetes. The problem is that since the dog’s body is not able to take up all of the glucose in the blood, the body tries to compensate by producing more insulin. It believes that the reason why the cells remain ‘hungry’ is because there is not enough insulin transporting glucose inside cells. Over time, the increased demand on the pancreas leads to a complete loss of its ability to produce insulin.
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Why is Diabetes in Dogs Dangerous?
Regardless of whether your dog has Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, there are always two effects upon which all other problems will spring from.
First, since glucose is not being delivered to the cells, these cells starve. Muscle cells that starve for fuel will break down their own fat and protein composition which will serve as alternative fuel. Other cells will also start breaking down their own fats and proteins just so they can keep up with their metabolic needs. Sadly, this can only last for so long. Cells eventually die if they have already consumed all of their resources.
The second problem is related to the effects of too much glucose in the blood, a condition called hyperglycemia. This is the most classic manifestation of diabetes. Too much glucose in the blood can lead to a host of problems that can affect the heart, the kidneys, the blood vessels, the eyes, and even nerves. Eventually, this can lead to organ damage.
What Causes Dogs to Become Diabetic?
Because diabetes is a multifactorial and complex health phenomenon, scientists are still baffled as to what exactly causes it. The main issues here are inherently tied to the types of diabetes. For Type 1, the issue is more related to why the specialized cells in the pancreas are no longer producing insulin. For Type 2, the issue is more related to why the body is not really responding to the presence of insulin in the blood.
What experts can only say at this point is that the development of diabetes can be affected by a variety of factors such as the presence of autoimmune diseases, chronic pancreatitis, obesity, and even genetics. In certain instances, the abnormal deposition of proteins in the pancreas has been blamed as a major factor in diabetes development. Certain drugs or medications are also believed to play a role in disease causation.
Are There Risk Factors for Canine Diabetes?
Since the exact disease causation of canine diabetes is poorly understood, one can only hope to establish a correlation between and among various risk factors that, when combined, can increase the likelihood of diabetes development. Here are some of the more common risk factors associated with diabetes in dogs.
- Age – Dogs that are at least 5 years old or are already considered as senior have twice the risk of having diabetes than younger hounds.
- Gender – Unspayed female hounds have twice the risk of having diabetes than unneutered male dogs.
- Pancreatitis – The presence of chronic pancreatitis can increase the risk of developing diabetes.
- Obesity – Obesity increases insulin resistance which is the major pathophysiology in Type 2 diabetes. Obesity is also considered a major risk factor in the development of pancreatitis.
- Breed – Australian terriers, Beagles, Bichon Frises, Cairn terriers, Dachshunds, Fox terriers, Keeshonds, Mini Schnauzers, Poodles, Pugs, Pulis, and Samoyeds are at an increased risk of developing diabetes than any other dog breed, pure or mixed.
- Diet – High-fat diet can lead to pancreatitis which is a major diabetes risk factor.
How Do I Know If My Dog Is Diabetic?
There are three signs that are very characteristic of diabetes – increased thirst, increased appetite, and increased urination. All of these are actually related to an increase in the osmolality of the blood because of excessive glucose. The excess glucose in the blood is excreted in the dog’s urine. Unfortunately, as it is excreted, it also draws with it water. Hence the volume of urine is increased leading to polyuria.
Consequently, because there is increased water that is being excreted in the urine, the dog’s body will try to compensate for the resulting dehydration. This makes the dog want to drink more often. Increased thirst is called polydipsia.
The principal issue in diabetes is that there is excessive glucose in the blood yet none or only a few of these ever reach the cell. As such the cells starve to death. This triggers the hunger center in the dog’s brain to increase the consumption of food. Increased appetite is known as polyphagia.
Polyphagia, polyuria, and polydipsia are all indicative of diabetes. Of course, these are not the only possible signs that your dog has diabetes. The following manifestations often indicate an advanced stage of the disease.
- Lack of energy
- Loss of appetite
If the diabetes is allowed to get worse, the following manifestations may be observed.
- Enlargement of the liver
- Kidney failure
- Cataracts, which can lead to blindness
- Frequent urinary tract infections
In its most severe form, ketoacidosis can develop because of the utilization of ketones as alternative sources of energy by the liver. This can produce rapid breathing, vomiting, lethargy, and dehydration. Perhaps the most important sign that your dog may already have ketoacidosis as a result of its diabetes is when you smell its breath to be exceptionally sweet. This is because of the presence of ketones in the digestive tract of the dog.
How is Canine Diabetes Diagnosed?
Diagnosing diabetes in dogs follows the same principles applied in human diabetes cases. Blood tests are performed to establish the levels of blood glucose. Normally, the level of blood glucose is 4.4 to 6.6 mmol/L. After meals, this will normally rise to about 13.6 to 16.5 mmol/L. A diagnosis of diabetes is made if the dog’s blood glucose levels after a meal rise to more than 22 mmol/L.
Additionally, urine analysis is conducted to check whether the kidneys are starting to excrete glucose in the urine. Normally, glucose is not excreted in the urine. Finding glucose in the urine is almost always an indication of diabetes.
Other tests such as electrolyte levels and liver enzymes can also provide a more definitive diagnosis of diabetes in dogs.
What Treatments are Available for Canine Diabetes?
The goals of treatment for canine diabetes are directed at reducing the levels of glucose in the blood and facilitating the transport of glucose in the blood to the cells.
High-fiber diet is highly recommended as it provides the bulk in the gut without an increase in sugar content. Fiber also helps increase the secretion of insulin for dogs that have Type 2 diabetes. As much as possible, the diabetic diet should contain less carbohydrates that can be converted into glucose since the blood already has too much of it. High fiber diet can normalize the levels of glucose in the blood. Your vet may also suggest going for higher-quality protein dog food and lower fat content.
In addition to a high-fiber, high-protein, and low-fat diet, veterinarians also recommend feeding your dog twice a day instead of giving it an open-feeding option. Each meal should be given just prior to the administration of insulin injections. This is to make sure the insulin will have something to move inside the cells. For more options, head over to our guide on food for diabetic dogs.
Increased physical activity can help dogs burn the excess glucose that is present in their blood. However, care should be taken since going for really strenuous exercises may have the opposite effects. Instead of helping your dog, you might end up harming it even more by causing as sudden drop in its glucose levels. Vets and experts suggest that moderate forms of exercise done in a consistent manner are better than going flat out.
The administration of insulin as an injection can help move excess glucose in the blood and into the cells. This will only work for those dogs with Type 1 diabetes, however. Remember that the main pathology in this type of diabetes is the absence of insulin, leading to the accumulation of glucose in the blood because there is no transport mechanism. Hence, giving insulin will help address this lack of transport mechanism so glucose in the blood can be used by the cells.
- Oral hypoglycemic agents
For dogs with Type 2 diabetes, a different kind of antidiabetic medication can be given. Instead of injections, your dog may be given oral hypoglycemic agents like acarbose to help improve the control of blood glucose levels.
How Can I Help My Dog that is Diabetic?
Pet parents with diabetic dogs will have to realize that their pets will be relying on them for appropriate care. This means that you will have to learn how to administer insulin or even oral hypoglycemic medications to your dog. You should also know how to perform blood glucose testing using commercially available test kits. You also remain faithful to the diet and exercise regimen designed by your vet for your pet. Lastly, you really need to learn how to make accurate assessments especially when looking for the different symptoms of an impending diabetic crisis.
Having a dog with diabetes can be very challenging for any pet parent. But with the guidance of a licensed and trustworthy veterinarian, and also a pet insurance plan, you should be able to provide the best possible care for your canine friend.
- Dr. Gary Michelson, Do You Suspect Pet Diabetes? 7 Warning Signs, Michelson Found Animals
- Diabetes in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment, The American Kennel Club
- Diabetes in Pets, American Veterinary Medical Foundation