Believe it or not, the recent surge in the occurrence of diabetes isn’t limited to humans –diabetes is also being found in dogs in rapidly growing numbers. In fact, researchers now estimate that one in 160 dogs in America will develop the disease.
While that might not seem like an alarming figure, keep in mind that this rate has more than tripled since 1970. While there is no cure for diabetes in dogs, there has been great progress in treatment options in recent years, and dogs with diabetes are now living longer, healthier lives. But it is treated differently than in humans, and requires careful blood sugar monitoring and daily insulin injections.
What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic disease that can affect dogs and cats and other animals (including apes, pigs, and horses) as well as humans. In dogs, diabetes is a complex disease caused by either a lack of insulin or an inadequate response to insulin. Diabetes can’t be cured, but it can be managed very successfully.
To fully understand what diabetes is, it helps to understand some of this process.
The conversion of food nutrients into energy to power the body’s cells involves an ongoing relationship between glucose and insulin.
When food is digested, the body breaks down some of the nutrients (mainly carbohydrates) into glucose, a type of sugar that is an essential source of energy for certain cells and organs in the body. Glucose is absorbed from the intestines into the blood, which then transports it throughout the body.
While this is happening, an important organ next to the stomach called the pancreas releases the hormone insulin into the body. Insulin acts as the body’s “gatekeeper” that tells cells to grab glucose and other nutrients out of the bloodstream and use them as fuel.
Think of glucose as the fuel that your dog’s body runs on. In the case of diabetes, the relationship between glucose and insulin does not work as it should, and your dog’s blood sugar levels will rise. The cells don’t take in enough glucose, and as a result, it builds up in the blood. This elevated blood sugar is called hyperglycemia, and if left untreated, can starve the cells and the organs that soak in sugary blood will become damaged.
But diabetes is generally considered to be manageable, and with proper treatment, your dog’s diabetes can be managed so that they live happy, healthy lives and do not see their disease develop to this point.
Types of Dog Diabetes
When diabetes occurs, the glucose-insulin connection isn’t working as it should.
Like with humans, diabetes in dogs can be classified as either Type 1 or Type II.
Type I occurs when a dog’s body isn’t producing enough insulin. This is known as diabetes mellitus, or “sugar diabetes.” This is virtually the same as Type I diabetes in humans, formerly known as juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes. This occurs when the pancreas is damaged or otherwise not functioning properly. Dogs with Type I diabetes require daily shots to replace the missing insulin.
Type II, formerly known as adult onset diabetes in humans, is actually the most common form of diabetes in humans and cats.
Type II, insulin-resistance diabetes, occurs when the pancreas is producing some insulin, but the dog’s body isn’t utilizing the insulin as it should. The dog’s cells don’t respond to the insulin’s “message,” so glucose does not get pulled out of the blood and into the cells.
This form is often linked to diet and obesity but is rarely found in dogs. However older, obese dogs would be the most susceptible.
Female dogs can also develop gestational diabetes (temporary insulin resistance) while in heat or pregnant.
Complications of Diabetes in Dogs
When a dog has diabetes, sugar will build up in his bloodstream, but his body’s cells that require the sugar are unable to access it. This causes damage to a diabetic dog’s body in two primary ways.
First, the dog’s cells are starved for that vital fuel mentioned above: glucose. Muscle cells and organ cells need glucose for energy. With glucose missing, the dog’s body will search for other methods of fuel, and start breaking down its own fats and proteins to use as alternative fuel.
Second, high sugar levels in the bloodstream causes direct damage to many organs. When the insulin needed to convert glucose in the bloodstream into fuel is missing, high levels of glucose build up in the blood. This glucose buildup can eventually cause damage to multiple organs, including the kidneys, eyes, heart, blood vessels, or nerves.
What dogs are most at risk for diabetes?
There are several factors that can raise a dog’s risk for developing diabetes.
Because some breeds appear to be more susceptible to developing diabetes than other, it is thought that there is a genetic component to diabetes. Diabetes can occur in any breed or mixed-breed, but a study that examined diabetes rates in thousands of American dogs found that overall, mixed-breed dogs were more prone to diabetes than purebreds.
Among purebreds, breeds varied greatly in their susceptibility, but those with higher risk include Miniature Poodles, Bichons Frises, Pugs, Dachshunds, Miniature Schnauzers, Puli, Samoyeds, Keeshonds, Australian Terriers, Fox Terriers, Cairn Terriers, and Beagles.
Diabetes most often affects middle-aged and senior dogs, with 70 percent of patients older than seven at the time of diagnosis. It can occur at any age, but mainly develops later in a dog’s life. Diabetes very rarely occurs in dogs younger than one year of age.
Going along with obesity, a diet high in fat may contribute to pancreatitis.
Female dogs and neutered male dogs are more likely than intact males to get diabetes. Unspayed female dogs are twice as likely as male dogs to have diabetes.
Being overweight can make a dog’s cells resistant to insulin, but it’s unclear whether it actually causes diabetes in dogs. However, obese dogs are at major risk for developing pancreatitis, which can lead to diabetes.
Chronic or repeated pancreatitis
Chronic or repeated pancreatitis will eventually cause extensive damage to the pancreas, with the result being diabetes.
Long-term usage of steroids can cause diabetes.
Other health conditions
There are some autoimmune disorders and viral diseases that may possibly trigger diabetes. This includes Cushing’s disease, where the body overproduces steroids internally.
Causes of Diabetes in Dogs
As with many diseases in dogs, the exact cause of diabetes is unknown. But there are many factors that are thought to be involved in its development. These include autoimmune disease, genetics, obesity, chronic pancreatitis, certain medications, and abnormal protein dep