Diabetes in Dogs
Diabetes in dogs is not very common. But if your dog was diagnosed with diabetes, this article can help provide information about what causes the condition and how to treat it. The most important part is learning to manage your dog's diabetic condition, which is covered in the last half of this article.
Like us, our dog relies on glucose to provide their body with the energy it needs to function properly. Glucose in their food is absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to all the cells in their body, where it is used for fuel. The hormone insulin is responsible for moving glucose through the cell walls and into the cells.
Insulin is produced by cells known as beta cells, which are found in the pancreas. This little gland sits in the abdomen, tucked away between the stomach and upper small intestine. Most cases of diabetes in dogs are due to auto-immune disease; their immune system goes haywire and destroys their beta cells, resulting in a deficiency of insulin. While people can develop type 2 diabetes, where the insulin produced by the beta cells doesn't have any effect, this type doesn't occur in dogs. All cases of diabetes in dogs are like our type 1 diabetes, with a shortage of beta cells, and reduced production of insulin.
Causes of Diabetes in Dogs
There is no single cause of diabetes in dogs. There is certainly a breed predisposition, with German Shepherds, Schnauzers, Beagles and Poodles showing a genetic tendency to develop this disease. Gender also plays a role, with female dogs three times more likely to become diabetics than male dogs.
Other factors that may be involved in a dog becoming diabetic are chronic inflammation of the pancreas, obesity and excessive use of some medications such as corticosteroids. Some dogs are unlucky enough to be born with low numbers of insulin secreting cells, and show signs of diabetes from a very young age. However, in most cases, this is a disease of middle aged dogs, with the majority of affected dogs being over 5 years of age.
Diagnosing the Condition
Diabetes in dogs is diagnosed if they consistently have a higher than normal blood glucose level. Dogs are tested on an empty stomach, because high levels are to be expected after they have eaten. A tiny sample of blood is taken, and a blood glucose meter is used to give a measurement within minutes.
The normal amount of glucose in your dog's blood is between 80 and 120 mg per deciliter (mg/dl). Diabetic dogs regularly have blood glucose levels over 200mg/dl. Because this amount of blood glucose is beyond what the kidney can absorb, glucose is also found in the urine.
Signs and Symptoms of Diabetes in Dogs
This condition doesn't occur overnight; it comes on slowly over some time. Symptoms don't usually appear until over 90% of insulin producing cells have been wiped out. Often the first sign that your dog has a problem is that they are emptying their water bowl more frequently, and they urinate more often than they used to. Because their cells are basically starving for nutrition, they may also lose weight in spite of an increased appetite. Bladder infections are common, as bacteria like the high level of glucose in the urine of these dogs.
If a diabetic dog isn't treated, or their insulin dose isn't enough to manage their condition, they may develop diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). If their body can't use glucose to fuel its cells, it starts to metabolize fat. Fatty acids make their way to the liver, where they are converted to ketones which are then used for energy. When too many ketones are circulating in the dog's blood stream, the result is diabetic ketoacidosis. Symptoms of DKA include vomiting, dehydration and extreme lethargy. Affected dogs have breath that smells like nail polish remover, because of the excess acetone in their system. This is a life threatening emergency and needs urgent veterinary care.
Managing the Diabetic Dog
The aim of treatment in a diabetic dog is to keep their blood glucose levels within normal limits and prevent them developing cataracts, bladder infections or any other complications of their disease. This is done in two ways:
Giving regular injections of insulin to replace that which is not being produced by the pancreas.
Food and Exercise
Keeping their energy intake and output as constant as possible. This means feeding the same amount of the same food at the same time each day. It also means that the same amount of exercise each day is better than one day of extreme activity and the next day spent on the couch.
The first step is to work out how many calories your dog will need to maintain their body condition, and decide what you are going to feed them. You can purchase prescription diets which are high in fiber and low in fat, and specifically designed to help to manage diabetes. Some brands include Royal Canin Diabetic HF 18, Purina Veterinary Diets DCO, and Hill's Prescription Diet r/d and w/d.
However, diabetic dog food is expensive, and if they are beyond your budget, you can feed your dog a non-prescription balanced diet. In the past, most veterinarians would recommend a specific high fiber diet to help control diabetes in dogs, but studies have shown that not all dogs do well with these diets, and regular dog food is fine for diabetics. The most important thing is consistency in the amount and timing of their food.
Blood Glucose Curve in Dogs
Your dog's first dose of insulin is given after breakfast, while they are in hospital, and their blood glucose is then measured every two hours over the course of the day. This is to check their response to the insulin, and to make sure their glucose levels don't drop too low. They then go home with you, with instructions on how much insulin to give them each day, and when to feed them. The glucose curve will need to be repeated in a week or so, to check that blood glucose is still being kept within normal limits. You can use a urine dipstick to regularly check your dog's urine for the presence of glucose, and this will give you a good idea of how well their condition is being managed.
When their blood glucose levels are stabilized, diabetic dogs only need a glucose curve done every 4-6 months. However, a curve will need to be done if there are any changes in their condition that suggest their diabetes is no longer well controlled.
Your diabetic dog will rely on you to monitor their condition, and give them once- or twice-daily injections of insulin under their skin. This isn't hard to do, and your veterinarian will teach you how to do it properly. It can be nerve wracking until you master the technique, but you don't need to worry about how your dog feels about it. The needles are tiny, and don't hurt them at all.
Consistency is Key
It's a great idea to keep a written record of your dog's appetite, demeanor, and urine dipstick results. This will be a useful reference should they need adjustments to their food intake or insulin dose in the future. Keep in mind that your dog's diabetes will be affected if they become sick for any other reason, for example if they get an upset stomach or diarrhea.
When it comes to diabetes in dogs, one of the most difficult parts is the strict control of their food intake. They shouldn't be given any between-meal snacks, or leftovers from your own meals. This will increase their glucose intake over the course of a day, and play havoc with their blood glucose levels. If you like to give your dog treats to show how much you love them, give them a cuddle or a massage instead. It will be better for their health.
Diabetic dogs can enjoy a normal life. The key is a committed owner who is prepared to do the hard work to keep their blood glucose levels normal, and regular check ups with their veterinarian.
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