Diabetes In Dogs: Why They Get It, How To Manage It

Curious dog in walking harness

Curious dog in walking harness

I have been getting quite a few questions about diabetes in dogs, even though it is a fairly rare dog disease (not like cats, where type 2 diabetes is at epidemic levels and closely linked to the equal epidemic of feeding dry food to cats, an unnatural ingredient for the obligate carnivore).

But for dogs, diet is not implicated in their diabetes, it is genetically predetermined. On THE EXPERT VET on Radio Pet Lady Network we discussed this issue thoroughly since my co-host on the show, Dr Donna Spector, is a board certified Internist, a member of the veterinary holistic doctors organization (AVHMA) and has special interest in systemic illnesses like diabetes. If you have a dog or cat with diabetes or other difficult-to-manage medical conditions, and would like to schedule a telephone and/or online consultation with Dr. Donna and your own vet, she can be reached at drdonna@spectordvm.com.

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Diabetes In Dogs: Why They Get It, How To Manage It

Diabetes in dogs is based on a genetic tendency towards developing it — they are almost exclusively Type 1 diabetics and would become diabetic regardless of their diets (unlike cats who become type 2 diabetics from a diet with carbohydrates, or people who can develop type 2 diabetes from obesity).

In Type 1 diabetes, there is a true lack of pancreatic insulin production. Dogs who have a genetic susceptibility to immune destruction of the cells within the pancreas that secrete insulin (or some breeds are just born without the correct number of cells) will progress to a complete lack of insulin. The cells do not just temporarily shut-down — they are just gone. Because of this, dogs who develop diabetes are almost always dependent on insulin and no matter what you do to them, they will always require insulin.

If you feed your dog a high protein/low carb diet, it may help slow the onset of diabetes in a dog destined to get the disease but if you have a dog with the genetic profile to be a Type 1 diabetic it will happen, regardless. It may happen more slowly in a dog on that type of diet, but it will happen.

Every diabetic dog is a bit different and diet will have a lot more impact in some than others. Also the need for weight gain or weight loss factor into this dietary equation for each individual. You want to make sure your vet has checked your dog’s thyroid levels since an imbalance there can also affect the metabolism and cause weight changes.

If you already have a dog who is significantly overweight, then your best bet to achieve weight loss is the same as in any dog: reduce the amount of highly processed carbs which has probably caused the obesity (an all-carb diet with a heavily corn and grain based kibble) and increase the protein to kick start the metabolism into burning that fat. This is the theory behind the Atkins diet and others for people, and the same holds true for dogs: reduce carbs, increase protein, and you will see weight loss.

Once a dog gets diabetes you might mistakenly think that lowering the carbohydrates would be a solution (as it is in people) but in dogs, research has proven that a high fiber diet is the best management tool because it helps to slow glucose absorption from the intestine. This creates a more stable blood sugar throughout the day, making it easier to manage the diabetes successfully. So you want to keep a diabetic dog on a high quality diet and then add a supplemental source of soluble fiber to help best control the blood sugar after eating (technically called the post-prandial glucose level).

The best diet for all diabetic dogs is one that is high in fiber since that is helps to control the fluctuations of the dog’s blood sugar levels. Most commercially available high fiber diets contain high levels of a fiber that is called insoluble fiber (e.g. lignins and cellulose) while a tastier diet with better blood sugar control comes from adding more soluble fiber sources (e.g. gums and pectins) as the main source of fiber in the food.

No matter what fine food you’re feeding your diabetic dog, you will need to add significant amounts of soluble fiber (Metamucil, broccoli, carrots, canned pumpkin, and baked or boiled potato skins, and chick peas).

It is important that people realize that while fiber is technically a carbohydrate, it is a complex carbohydrate and is not digested by the body the same way as a simple carbohydrate, which is why not all carbohydrate foods are bad. The glycemic index/insulin index was created so that people can understand the impact of different types of carbs.

High quality kibble contains 2-3% fiber as insoluble fiber while a diabetic dog should ideally be eating about 8% to 12% fiber, especially of the soluble form of fiber to maximize the glucose lowering effects. But this means you need to add good natural sources of soluble fiber like psyllium husk (aka Metamucil), canned pumpkin and veggies such as carrots and broccoli in any form. Other sources are beans like chickpeas which have tons of fiber and protein and a very low glycemic index — if you mash them there is less possibility for causing gas. If your dog has issues about the stool being too soft you can add insoluble fiber in the form of potato skins (boiled or baked) but not sweet potatoes which are a source of fiber (the average sized potato (75grams) that give 3 grams of fiber but is a high calorie item.

On a gram basis, a high fiber diet is considered about 20 grams of fiber per 400 calories. So you have to figure out what the normal kibble supplies and then supplement. For example, let’s say Kibble X supplies 10 grams of fiber in 300 calories. We have to find a way to supplement an additional 10 grams of fiber in every 100 calories of food. In these instances, you often have to go to a purified form of fiber (like psyllium/ Metamucil) which supplies 3.5 grams of fiber per teaspoon (which is 20 calories). It isn’t a cookbook recipe, it’s different for each dog.

That is the current picture with diabetes in dogs but there are concerns from some experts that we may start to create a new form of Type 2 diabetes in dogs — similar to the situation in cats and people. Dogs are omnivores so metabolically they are able to handle a larger carb load than cats, but high carbohydrate diets are more likely to lead to obesity due to the presence of high glycemic fillers. Over time, dogs who are not genetically predisposed to becoming Type 1 diabetic may indeed develop a Type 2 metabolism from eating these type of foods — so a diet with reduced carbohydrates would be a good way to guard against diabetes.

–Tracie Hotchner

photo credit: fwisneski via photopin cc