This article was updated on January 6th, 2023
Most often, diabetes in older dogs is identified as Diabetes Mellitus, and happens because your dog’s pancreas becomes unable to produce enough insulin, a hormone essential in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.
Dog diabetes is similar to human diabetes in some ways, and different in others.
If you want to make a comparison, you’ll find that canine diabetes is somewhat like Type I diabetes in humans. This is where there is destruction of the cells within the pancreas that produce the insulin as opposed to type-2 diabetes where cells don’t respond to the insulin even though there is enough of it.
Canine Diabetes Mellitus is usually not seen in younger dogs (those less than 4 or 5 years old), and symptoms most often become noticeable in dogs who are considered to be middle-aged or older.
It’s also more common in female dogs than in males, and unspayed females are more at risk than spayed females.
Are Certain Breeds More Predisposed to Dog Diabetes?
As with many diseases, some purebred dogs seem to have a predisposition to developing Diabetes during their lifetime. Dog breeds who have an above-average chance of developing canine diabetes include (but may not be limited to):
- Alaskan Malamute
- Australian Terrier
- Bichon Frise
- Cairn Terrier
- Chow Chow
- Finnish Spitz
- Fox Terrier
- Golden Retriever
- Miniature Pinscher
- Old English Sheepdog
- Springer Spaniel
- West Highland Terrier
- Yorkshire Terrier
Mixed breed dogs may be less likely to become diabetic, but they are not immune to developing the disease.
Canine Diabetes is not very common, but it is on the rise (as it is in humans).
Although there are no firm stats on the incidence of diabetes in dogs, estimates range from between 1 in 100 to 1 in 500 dogs being affected (at max that is 1% of all dogs). However, studies show that over the past five years, there has been an increase of over 30% in the number of dogs being diagnosed with diabetes.
Fortunately, diabetes is a very treatable condition when caught early and diabetic dogs can still live happy, active lives with the right veterinary care.
How Long Can Older Dogs Live with Diabetes?
Studies have shown that the median survival time for dogs diagnosed with diabetes mellitus is 964 days. But the answer to this question will depend on how well your elderly dog’s diabetes is controlled and if they have any other concurrent illness that might cause insulin resistance.
Through careful monitoring of blood sugar levels and adjustment of insulin doses where necessary, dogs suffering from diabetes mellitus can continue to live a happy life with little or no symptoms of the disease. In fact, if their diabetes is perfectly controlled and any other concurrent illness are successfully treated, diabetes may not have any effect on your dogs life expectancy.
The challenge when treating a dog with diabetes is getting the disease under control once it has been diagnosed; if poorly controlled, many dogs won’t make it through the first few months following diagnosis.
However, once a dog is on the correct dose of insulin and makes it through the first few months then they are more likely to continue to live a relatively normal life.
Causes of Dog Diabetes
Perhaps surprisingly, there really isn’t one firm, universally accepted theory as to why some dogs become diabetic.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
The physical cause of Diabetes Mellitus in dogs is an ineffective pancreas resulting in reduced insulin levels, or an incorrect physiological response by your dog’s body to normal insulin levels
Dog diabetes may be caused by:
- Inflammation of the Pancreas (acute or chronic Pancreatitis)
- Auto-immune disease (one trigger MAY be over-vaccination)
- Genetic predisposition
- Cushing’s Disease (hyperadrenocorticism)
Other possible causes of canine diabetes may include:
WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]
- A high fat diet (which can also contribute to pancreatitis)
- Obesity (often as a result of high fat diet)
- Medications (such as corticosteroids)
Symptoms of Diabetes in Dogs
Symptoms of canine diabetes are pretty diverse because high levels of blood sugar over time can cause damage to many organs and bodily functions.
The most common signs that your dog may be developing diabetes include:
- Increase in thirst and excessive drinking
- Increase in urination (with possible housebreaking accidents)
- Excessive hunger
- Weight loss
- Lethargy or excessive sleepiness
- Dry, dull coat
- Cloudy eyes or poor vision (and even cataracts)
- Repeated urinary tract infections
- Sweet, sugary smell to the breath
- Unusual neurological behaviour and even seizures
Obviously, some of these symptoms can point to other diseases or illnesses, so if you notice any of them in your dog it’s important to have a full veterinary exam so you can get a correct diagnosis.
In severe cases, dogs left untreated can develop a condition called ketoacidosis which is life-threatening.
Diagnosing Diabetes with Dogs
To diagnose diabetes, your vet will likely examine your dog’s urine for the presence of glucose and do blood tests to check your dogs blood sugar levels. If there is glucose present in your dog’s urine and their blood glucose levels are consistently high throughout the day, then it is likely that they have diabetes.
Other lab work such as tests for liver function and enzymes, as well as electrolyte levels may also be used to figure out what stage your dog is at and how much damage has been done (or not done).
Treating Canine Diabetes
How your vet chooses to treat your older dog if he develops diabetes depends on how advanced/severe his illness is at the time of diagnosis.
For early-to-mid stage canine diabetes some simple changes in diet and exercise levels may be the first step.
Foods with a high sugar content should be avoided at all costs. A dog food with a low glycemic index (which contains ingredients that convert to sugar slowly and therefore maintain a better glucose balance) can help.
So can consistent, moderate exercise which may help prevent erratic blood sugar spikes/drops.
If your dog is overweight, it’s a good idea for her/him to slim down under your vet’s supervision (read our page on weight loss in older dogs). This will make the body better able to maintain healthy glucose levels by improving their metabolism.
Some dogs with mild/moderate diabetic symptoms will also need daily insulin shots, for the rest of their lives.
Dogs whose diabetes has become severe may need specialized, in-house care in order to stabilize their blood glucose and electrolyte levels. Once ready to return home they will also be likely to need daily insulin therapy.
Giving your dog a daily shot might sound awful, but it isn’t too difficult and quickly becomes just a part of your daily dog-care routine. Your vet should show you exactly how much insulin is needed and where to inject it into your dog.
In some cases, oral medications can be prescribed in place of the shots, but these usually aren’t as effective as injections – the decision on which treatment option is best for any dog with diabetes rests with the veterinarian.
Treatment for canine diabetes also includes keeping a close eye on blood sugar levels, so you’ll be doing regular glucose testing (which can be done at home). Periodic blood tests will also be done by your veterinarian. Glucose curves involve measuring your dog’s blood sugar levels throughout the day and are key in ensuring the dose of insulin is correct.
Your vet will be able to tell you how to monitor your golden oldie successfully, the signs that could mean trouble, and how to handle any issues.
Due to the effect hormones can have on glucose levels, your vet may suggest that an un-spayed female be spayed as soon as her health is stable as part of her treatment program.
Diabetes in dogs is a chronic condition, and requires on-going treatment and monitoring for life, as well as a regular exercise routine and regular mealtimes.
Luckily with the right care your diabetic dog’s life can continue to be happy, comfortable and enjoyable.
4 Simple Ways to Help Minimize Risk of Diabetes for Your Dog
There is no way to guarantee that your dog won’t develop canine diabetes in later life, as some causes are predetermined. Genetics can be an invisible trigger, and there are still some unknowns and uncertainties surrounding the disease. But the good news is that there are some simple things you can do that will help minimize the risks for your dog, these include:
1. Prevent obesity
Feeding a premium dog food, portion control, and regular mealtimes are all part of maintaining a healthy weight for your senior dog.
Regular weighing checks will ensure you are keeping track of your dog’s weight. We also recommend regular weighing as part of the overall care for an old dog (see our top tips to care for an older dog).
A low fat, high fiber diet is what you should be aiming for. Check out this page for more help with choosing the best food for dogs with health problems, including Diabetes.
Although a few treats aren’t going to pack on the pounds, it’s important to monitor how many treats and goodies your dog gets… and even more important to make sure that they are suitable for diabetic dogs (see our page on diabetic dog treats). Remember that treats should not make up more than 10% of a dog’s daily calorie intake!
Choosing diabetic dog treats isn’t a challenge when you know what your options are!
2. Have a regular exercise routine
Getting a moderate amount of exercise daily is good for dogs of all ages and can help prevent many canine health problems including diabetes.
Combined with an appropriate and healthy diet, exercise will also help to keep your dog at the correct weight.
Daily walks, back-yard playtimes, even training sessions can all play a role in increasing your senior dog’s activity level.
Check out this page to learn more about exercising older dogs safely and effectively.
3. Spay your dog
Statistics show that spayed female dogs are less likely to develop Diabetes than un-spayed females.
4. Avoid long-term steroid use if possible
Research indicates that long-term use of steroid drugs can cause auto-immune problems or other side effects which may lead to the development of diabetes.
Some health conditions require the use of steroid medications, and in that situation obviously be guided by your veterinarian’s advice. But, limit the length of time your dog has to use these as much as possible.
Do Dogs with Diabetes Suffer?
When diabetes is kept adequately under control and your dog’s blood glucose levels remain stable throughout the day, your dog can live a relatively normal lifestyle. They may have a less varied diet due to having to be on specially formulated diabetic food and they may not enjoy having to have daily insulin injections, but generally, they can remain happy.
If your dog’s diabetes is poorly controlled however then your dog is likely suffering. For some dogs this may be obvious – your dog might not have any energy or interest in their once-loved activities and games, they might not enjoy food anymore or they might regularly vomit. Clearly, these symptoms affect a dog and unpredictable changes in blood glucose levels will make them feel ill throughout the day. Excessive thirst and urination may dominate their life to the point where they are unable to settle without having to get up to do one or the other.
Other dogs may be more stoic and not show symptoms of discomfort so obviously. It can be difficult to distinguish between a dog that has its diabetes well controlled and a dog who is suffering in silence. You may be able to pick up on subtle signs such as lethargy or depression, or it may be worth seeing your vet for blood tests to identify if the diabetes is under control.
Depending on the severity of an individual dog’s condition, dogs may display a range of clinical signs including an increased appetite, weakness, excessive thirst and urination, vomiting, and even seizures in severe cases. As you can see, some of these symptoms will be more unpleasant than others for your dog, but most will affect your dog’s normal day-to-day life in some way.
If you think your dog is suffering then talk to your veterinarian. In more extreme cases, it may be more kind to have your diabetic dog euthanized rather than allowing them to suffer.
FAQ About Dog Diabetes with Dr Alex Crow, Veterinary Surgeon
- What’s Insulin for Dogs? Can you Treat Dog Diabetes Without Insulin?
Insulin is an important hormone, produced by the pancreas, that is vital for regulating glucose levels within your dog’s bloodstream. Glucose is vital for providing energy for normal body functions, so a lack of insulin can result in may organ systems within your dog’s body shutting down.
Diabetes mellitus is a disease characterized by a lack of production of insulin (similar to type 1 in humans) and/or a resistance to insulin (similar to type 2 in humans). Because of a lack of ‘natural’ insulin within your dog’s bloodstream, they must be supplemented with exogenous forms of insulin – usually administered to your dog by injecting them under the skin daily. While dietary modifications can help make controlling diabetes easier, ultimately insulin is essential in the treatment of the disease.
If a diabetic dog does not receive insulin for even a few days, they risk going into a state of crisis called diabetic ketoacidosis, which can be fatal.1
- What’s the Extra Cost of Having a Dog with Diabetes?
Unfortunately treating a dog with diabetes doesn’t come without its costs. From the initial investigations to the cost of insulin and regular blood testing, the dollars soon add up. Depending on the type of insulin your dog is receiving and their dose, treating diabetes in dogs can cost between $40-$200 per month. Add on top of that the cost of blood tests and visits to the vet and you can see how the price tag of treating diabetes can increase quickly.
- How Should the Owner Monitor the Dog’s Condition?
It’s a great idea for owners to get in the habit of monitoring their dog’s blood glucose levels, and hence how well their diabetes is controlled. A blood glucose meter such as this one will allow owners to measure their dog’s blood glucose at any moment in time.
These measurements can then be plotted on a graph against time to see how their blood glucose changes over the course of the day and how well they are responding to their insulin injections.
- What Kind of Food Should You Feed a Senior Dog With Diabetes?
A key part of treating a dog with diabetes is getting their diet right. There are many specifically formulated diets out there aimed at dogs but the important factors to remember include a diet that is low in carbohydrates (20-25%) and high in fiber. The carbs present in your dog’s diet should also have a low glycaemic index to prevent spikes in blood sugar levels. Otherwise, just be sure to choose a good quality diet; it doesn’t matter too much if it’s organic, natural or grain free, etc, as long as the criteria above are met.
- What Are Good Examples Dog Food Products that Are Good for Diabetic Dogs?
Here are some good examples of suitable diabetic diets for dogs:
- What are Examples of Homemade Diabetic Dog Food Meals?
It can be a great idea to make your own diabetic dog food at home, as long as you know exactly what’s going into it and stick to the low carb and low glycaemic index rules for all of the ingredients. Meals that include brown rice, chicken, turkey, chickpeas, carrots, kidney beans, and vegetables will ensure your not spiking your dog’s blood glucose levels. You could cook these ingredients plain or make them into a stew for a healthy diabetes-friendly meal for your pooch.