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Diabetes in dogs: Causes, signs, and potential treatments

Small dog playing with rope toy

Diabetes. It's a word familiar to us all, but what exactly is this condition and what does it mean for your dog? 

For the pet owner whose best buddy is diagnosed with diabetes mellitus, this familiar word can suddenly seem scary. In truth, diabetes mellitus in dogs is a treatable condition that doesn't have to get in the way of a long, fun life. Yes, diabetes¬†does mean lifelong therapy and changes in routine‚ÄĒbut it's not a showstopper.¬†¬†

What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is also known as sugar diabetes. Diabetes mellitus is a different condition to a similar sounding one, diabetes insipidus in dogs. For the latter, dogs cannot make strong urine and have an unquenchable thirst, but this is nothing to do with blood glucose levels.

In a nutshell, diabetic dogs can't control their blood glucose levels, which then run high. This is due to a lack of a hormone called insulin, which regulates how much sugar the body's cells soak up. Without insulin, sugar stays outside the cells in the bloodstream. When the blood sugar levels reach overload, this extra sugar is peed out in urine. 

Why does this matter? Well, there are a number of reasons why maxed out blood sugar levels are a bad idea. For starters, the purpose of sugar is to power the body's cells. Sugar that can't enter the cells is like having a vehicle with the gas cap welded on‚ÄĒand sooner or later, they run out of fuel. Then there are other problems, such as super-sugary pee being a perfect breeding ground for bacteria, so dogs with diabetes are prone to urine infections.¬†

Of course, the body needs to get power from somewhere, so it turns to burning its own fat. That's OK up to a point, but after a while it causes a buildup of natural toxins that slowly poison the dog. This can make them very ill and often requires emergency treatment. 

Common causes of diabetes in dogs

What causes canine diabetes? This is a great question for which there's no simple answer. Much like the perfect storm, diabetes occurs when a number of risk factors fall into place at the same time. The more risk factors a dog has, the higher the chance of diabetes developing. 

Let's look at how things stack up: 


Canine diabetes¬†is a disease of middle age. The average age for developing this condition is 7‚Äď9 years, although it can occur at both younger and older ages. Long story short, it's very unusual for a pup to develop diabetes.¬†


Sadly, some dog breeds are more likely to develop diabetes than others. Indeed, some family lines carry a strong history of diabetes, which hints at an inherited link. Those breeds considered poster dogs for diabetes include: 

  • Dachshund
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Poodle
  • Beagle
  • Keeshond
  • Yorkshire Terrier
  • Samoyed
  • Miniature Schnauzer

This doesn't mean that a breed not on the list can't develop diabetes, but only that their chances are less. 


Twice as many female dogs develop diabetes mellitus as male dogs. Intact female dogs are at special risk because of their heats or seasons. The hormone progesterone blocks the action of insulin, making it less effective and giving the dog a helping hand on the road to developing diabetes. 


Just as with people, carrying too much extra weight is a big risk factor. When the body stores fat, it makes it less easy for tissue to react to insulin, making it less effective. Additionally, the organ that produces insulin, the pancreas, is under additional strain and exhausts its ability to make enough insulin.


Certain medications, such as steroids, interfere with how insulin works. Under a certain set of circumstances this can cause diabetes in dogs.

What does this mean for the average dog on the street? OK, let's take two dogs: one is a young, slim, male crossbreed and the other is an overweight, middle-aged, intact female Dachshund. Which dog is at greatest risk of developing diabetes? You got it: the Doxie… because she ticks more boxes. 

Signs and symptoms: Noticing early warning signs of diabetes in dogs

Many of the signs of diabetes are quite general and don't in themselves mean a dog is diabetic. Anyone that thinks their dog shows symptoms should consult a vet (and take a urine sample for a speedy diagnosis).

The early signs of diabetes include: 

  • Increased thirst
  • Needing to pee more often, and maybe even having accidents in the house
  • Weight loss despite a good appetite

Without treatment, over time the picture changes slightly to include:

  • Poor appetite
  • Lack of energy
  • Vomiting
  • Dull coat
  • Substantial weight loss
  • Cataracts

Managing your dog’s diabetes

If you've received a canine diabetes diagnosis, there‚Äôs the question of how to treat diabetes in dogs. The backbone of treating diabetes is insulin for dogs‚ÄĒbut this isn't the full story. Again, just like people, weight loss makes a big difference as to how much insulin the dog needs. And it's also important to get on top of infections early and take steps such as spaying a female dog.¬†

Natural ways to treat diabetes

Insulin injections are crucial, but other factors such as lifestyle and general good health have an important role to play. Here are a few tips to better control the amount of insulin a diabetic dog needs.

  • Manage their weight: Speak to a vet about a safe way to diet a diabetic dog. Get that weight down to improve diabetes control.¬†
  • Provide a healthy diet: A healthy diet that avoids highly processed sugars and carbohydrates makes for a slower, sustained release of sugar into the bloodstream.¬†
  • Feed at regular times: Stick to a regular feeding schedule. This makes it easier to time insulin injections so that they have peak effect as the dog is digesting their dinner.¬†
  • Provide plenty of fresh drinking water: The dog voids excess sugar in urine, which means passing water. This lost water needs to be replaced regularly or can result in dehydration.¬†
  • Give plenty of toilet breaks: All that sugary urine invites bacteria to breed. The longer the urine sits in the bladder, the greater the chance of a UTI developing. Be sure to offer plenty of toilet breaks so those pesky bacteria are peed out.¬†
  • Play and plenty of walks: Once the dog is stable, there is evidence that regular exercise reduces the body's requirement for insulin. So as well as keeping them fit, active, and in shape, exercise acts like a medicine to reduce the need for insulin.
  • Treats for diabetic dogs: Ensure any treats are wholesome and high fiber, such as runner beans or broccoli, or freeze-dried veggies or meat.¬†

Medical interventions to treat diabetes in dogs

Insulin for dogs is the way ahead. The aim of these injections is to control blood sugar levels while allowing the dog to lead a normal life. Most dogs stabilize on two injections a day: one in the morning at the same time as breakfast, and another in the late afternoon with their evening meal. 

When the dog starts insulin therapy, expect there to be some monitoring involved. This is usually in the form of a blood test taken by the vet. The owner may also need to test urine on a regular basis to check for tell-tale signs that the dog is becoming toxic. Spotting this early allows the vet to adjust the insulin dose before the patient becomes sick. 

At present, there is no tablet that controls diabetes in dogs. Although there is an oral medication for mild diabetes in people, sadly this just isn't effective for our four-legged friends. And while learning to give injections might seem a huge mountain to climb, the vet will teach you and support you all the way. Indeed, special insulin pens are an option, which are simple to  use and the dog won't even notice they're having a shot.

Tips to help prevent canine diabetes

It's not always possible to prevent diabetes, but there is a lot an owner can do to minimize the chances of it happening. What's more, it's not rocket science. It's ordinary, sensible steps such as portion control (to keep a shapely waistline), feeding a healthy diet, and giving the dog plenty of exercise. Tack onto this, getting a female dog spayed and the odds of developing diabetes mellitus in dogs drop right off. Woofs to that!

The article was written by Pippa Elliot, BVMS, MRCVS on November 17, 2020.

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