You may have noticed your vet, fellow pup owners, even strangers at the dog park talking about canine diabetes lately. There’s a seeming rise in dogs getting the diagnosis, but why? And what can we do about it? Dogs can help humans with diabetes, thanks to their amazingly sensitive noses they can detect an abnormal drop in blood sugar. But how can we help them? We sniffed out the latest research on this common—but manageable—disease.
Is it on the rise?
Canine diabetes is surprisingly common, especially among such breeds as Pugs, Miniature Schnauzers, and Samoyeds. While we don’t know why these particular breeds are more at-risk, the fact that diabetes tends to show up in certain breeds suggests there’s a genetic underpinning to the disease. And in one report published by Banfield Pet Hospital, which analyzed medical data from 2.5 million dogs who visited its hospitals, canine diabetes has increased 80 percent since 2006 (although these stats don’t necessarily indicate causation).
“It seems there’s an interest in canine diabetes because of the rise in humans,” says Rebecca Hess, DVM, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, who adds that there’s no peer-reviewed evidence that dog diabetes is on the rise. “But it’s very manageable, and dogs should have a good quality of life while living with diabetes.” You just need to learn the signs—and know how to treat the symptoms.
How can you detect it?
While humans can get either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, dogs who develop the disease get the kind that’s most similar to Type 1: It occurs when the pup’s body either doesn’t produce enough insulin (the hormone that helps the body turn glucose, or sugar, into energy) or can’t utilize the insulin the body produces. “We don’t know exactly why the disease develops,” Hess says. “We suspect it may be that the immune system destroys cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, but that hasn’t been proven.” Again, since the disease shows up more often in certain breeds, scientists believe there’s a genetic component. “Unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent diabetes or know if your dog will develop it,” she adds.
However, you can watch for symptoms, which are very similar to Type 1 symptoms in humans: increased drinking, increased urination, and a king-size appetite coupled with weight loss. “Some dogs develop cataracts and have decreased vision,” Hess adds. “You’ll see them bumping into things.” Canine diabetes tends to develop in middle age—the average age of onset is 9 years—although younger dogs can get it, too. Again, researchers aren’t sure why diabetes tends to develop later in life, but it may be because it takes time for the immune system to destroy all those key pancreas cells. “It’s important to be aware of the signs, because when a dog isn’t treated promptly, the diabetes can be life-threatening.”
What can you do about it?
If you notice any of these red flags, immediately head to your vet for an evaluation. If your dog’s diagnosed with the disorder, you’ll need to begin giving her insulin injections twice a day—“the same insulin products given to humans,” Hess says. Your vet will also have you switch your dog to a diet high in insoluble fiber, packed with complex carbohydrates but low in fat and calories. Complex carbs and insoluble fiber take longer for the body to break down, Hess explains, so they don’t cause a blood-sugar spike.
Your dog will also probably need to start an exercise plan for gradual weight loss, since obesity makes it tougher for the body to process insulin. (Note that obesity doesn’t cause canine diabetes, Hess says—it just makes it harder to treat.) “It’s important that the dog eats and exercises the exact same amount every day so that we can gradually taper the insulin treatment to the smallest amount they need,” Hess adds. “Dogs who are lean and fit are better able to use the insulin we’re giving them, and the goal is to gradually taper the insulin treatment.” And to get your dog healthy again!