By Katrina Hugenot, RN

A couple of weeks ago, I’m quietly strolling the
streets of California on a relaxed weekend morning. A
Schnauzer approaches (with his human) and we are
quickly acquainted. Not too far into the chat, I learn
that this particular Schnauzer has just been diagnosed
with diabetes.

The mother relates that this diagnosis may shorten
his lifespan by a couple of years. She expresses her
confusion: she thought she’d been feeding him ‘well’,
so why has he developed diabetes? She tells me that
her schedule is now restricted by the Schnauzer’s
insulin timetable. She expresses concern that he not be
in pain and hope that his diabetes won’t lead to
blindness and circulation problems which might disable

This scene has become all too common. According to, approximately 1
in 400 dogs will develop diabetes mellitus. This number has
risen significantly in recent years. Forty years ago,
it was estimated that only 1 in 2000 dogs had
diabetes. Scientists have multiple theories about
this rise in incidence, frequently concluding that
dogs, like their people, are eating more refined
carbohydrates and exercising less. Many of the dry
kibble-type foods have ‘filler’ substances which
consist of refined carbohydrates. Other theories
include the increase in nitrites present in
processed meats (like dog food) which has shown a 46 %
increase in the likelihood of diabetes in humans.
Whatever the origin, the result is an increase in dogs
that are ill.

Diabetes is a disease of the endocrine system, caused
by a deficiency of insulin – the hormone that
regulates how blood sugar is absorbed and used by the
body. Type I diabetes (Juvenile) refers to a pancreas
that does not produce insulin at all. The pancreas in
Type II diabetics produces some, but not enough
insulin, thus needing outside supplementation in the
form of oral hypoglycemic (blood-sugar lowering)
medication or insulin. Almost all dogs have Type II

Female dogs appear to be the most susceptible. Dogs
over 7 years old are at greatest risk. However, there
is a strong correlation between obesity and diabetes
in dogs as well. Some breeds are known to be at higher
risk including: Puli, Miniature Pinscher, Cairn
Terrier, and Keeshond. However, Poodles, Dachshunds
and Beagles are also over-represented. It is the most
common hormonal disorder affecting dogs.

If you’re wondering how your canine companion might
be faring, the signs of diabetes in pets are similar
to those in humans. Diabetes symptoms include: weight
loss, increased thirst and urination, increased
appetite, liver malfunction, cataracts, and increased
risk of chronic infections. In its later stages, it
can lead to neuropathy, blindness, and death.

For dogs and owners who are now confronted with
diabetes, there are many new issues at hand. First,
there’s the food. Most vets recommend a specific brand
of ‘diabetic’ food, often quite different from the
dog’s customary food. While often costly for the
owner, it can take a toll on the dogs
gastro-intestinal system as well as they adjust to the
new food. Because this food is often canned, it’s
helpful to replace enzymes missing
in canned food, both to make the food more digestible and
also to ease the transition.

Next, there’s the medicine. Unlike the
human drugs, there are few oral hypoglycemic
medications for dogs. Thus, most are given insulin.
Ironically, most dogs tolerate the very fine insulin
needles quite well, making it somewhat easier to
arrange for their cooperation than ‘pill’ based
medication. There are several types of insulin of
short and long-acting varieties as determined by your

How does one determine how much insulin to give, you
ask? Depending on your dog, the severity of the
disease, and the veterinarian, you may give your dog a
‘set’ dose every day, or you may apply a sliding scale
after testing your dogs urine with urine ‘strips’, or
by collecting blood and monitoring the sugar level on
a glucometer.

In addition to the medical regime, diabetic dogs
respond well to ‘lifestyle’ therapies, especially
exercise. As with many things diabetic, consistency is
the crucial piece. Consistent, moderate DAILY exercise
is very helpful at maintaining insulin levels.
Similarly, very careful monitoring of the dog’s intake
also helps maintain blood glucose levels. In addition,
many people have had successful outcomes with various
herbs and nutritional supplements. Bilberry, chromium,
and astralagus have been shown to be supportive (ask your Veterinarian before giving your dog any supplement, herb or food.)

Treatment of diabetes requires commitment from the
owner. While manageable, it is a serious condition
that can be life-threatening if not managed well. Low
blood sugar crises can occur if a dog receives an
insulin overdose or does not eat food accompanying an
insulin injection. Symptoms of such a hypoglycemic
attack include weakness, lethargy, difficulty in
arousing from sleep, and sometimes seizures. If this
occurs, apply a very sweet liquid such as honey, corn
syrup, or fruit juice to the gums immediately, and
then visit your veterinarian promptly for additional
intravenous glucose or other care.

While not a life-sentence, diabetes is a
significantly uncomfortable, and mostly preventable
disease. More research is needed to fully understand
it’s causes, but feeding dogs real food (generally
including high quality, free-range,
antibiotic/hormone/nitrite free meat and organic
vegetables), minimizing their carbohydrate intake and
maintaining a consistent exercise program, not to
mention high doses of love and affection will go a
long way toward minimizing the chance of your dog
getting a diagnosis of ‘doggie diabetes.’

Katrina Hugenot is a Registered Nurse and dog lover with a very warm spot for Airedales and the late great Ansel. She publishes essays and articles about a wide range of topics on her website.

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