Getting a handle on diabetes in dogs — it’s causes, treatment options and prevention.
Your dog is diabetic.” It’s a diagnosis no one wants to hear, but it’s becoming increasingly common. While the equivalent of human juvenile diabetes is rare in dogs – most are born with a fully functional pancreas that produces adequate insulin – middle-aged and older animals are much more prone to the disease. This is because they have encountered enough lifestyle obstacles to induce either a decreased production of insulin, or a diminished ability to use it efficiently.
Diabetes in cats typically occurs from an inefficient use of insulin, but in dogs, it usually arises from a problem with insulin production. That’s why even though dogs develop the disease later in life, like cats and humans with Type II diabetes, the disease almost always takes the form of Type I in canines. So when you see “Type I diabetes” associated with a dog, keep in mind that it’s an adult-onset disease and not a condition he developed early in life.
The biggest causes of diabetes in dogs
1. Poor diet and obesity
Obesity and metabolically inappropriate foods are by far and away the biggest reasons dogs become diabetic. In fact, one of the best ways to prevent the disease is to maintain your dog’s weight throughout his life. You can help him stay trim by feeding a portion-controlled, moisture-rich, species-appropriate diet consisting primarily of a variety of unadulterated protein sources, healthy fats, low glycemic veggies and fruit in moderation, and specific nutritional supplements. This balanced, fresh food diet is also devoid of grains and excess starch.
Choosing low glycemic foods will not only reduce dietary stress in dogs that already have diabetes, but it also reduces pancreatic stress in healthy dogs, reducing the risk of diabetes developing. The glycemic index (GI) provides a measure of how quickly blood sugar levels rise after a particular food is eaten. It estimates how much each gram of available carbohydrate (total carbohydrate minus fiber) in a food raises a dog’s blood glucose level relative to the consumption of pure glucose. Glucose has a glycemic index of 100.
High glycemic foods include corn, whole wheat, rice, white potatoes, beets and carrots. Your dog has no biological requirement for grains or most other carbohydrates. Carbs, which can make up as much as 80% of the ingredient content of poor quality processed pet foods, turn into sugar in your dog’s body. Excess sugar taxes the pancreas, and this ultimately leads to diabetes.
2. Lack of exercise
Another lifestyle-related cause of canine diabetes, and one that often goes hand-in-hand with poor nutrition and obesity, is lack of physical activity. Your dog needs regular aerobic exertion to help maintain a healthy weight and keep his muscles in shape. He should be getting 20 to 40 minutes of rigorous aerobic-type exercise at least several days a week, preferably daily.
A growing body of research connects autoimmune disorders to Type I diabetes in dogs. If your dog’s immune system attacks her pancreas, she can develop diabetes. One of the main ways her immune system can be over-stimulated is through repetitive yearly vaccinations against diseases she is already protected against.
If your dog was immunized as a puppy, there’s a high likelihood her immunity to those diseases will last a lifetime. Each time a fully immunized dog receives a repetitive set of unnecessary vaccines, it increases the risk of sending her immune system into overdrive, which can set the stage for an autoimmune reaction in the pancreas that ultimately affects insulin production.
Finding an integrative or holistic veterinarian who performs titers to measure your dog’s antibody response from previous vaccinations will reduce the likelihood of over-vaccination.
Symptoms of diabetes
Signs can develop very gradually and include the following:
• Increased urination and thirst. These two symptoms are hallmarks of a diabetic condition, so watch closely for them, especially as your dog ages. Keep in mind as well that increased thirst and urine output are also signs of other serious health problems, so regardless of the age or condition of your dog, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian (and bring a urine sample) if you notice these symptoms.
• Increased appetite. Your dog might grow hungrier over time because the amino acids and glucose needed inside his cells aren’t getting there, or aren’t being used appropriately.
• Weight loss. When the cells are being starved of essential nutrients, the result is often an increase in appetite. But because the energy from food is not being used efficiently by the cells, your dog can lose weight even though he’s taking in more calories.
• Lack of energy and increased need for sleep. When the cells are deprived of blood sugar, your dog is apt to show a decreased desire to run, take a walk with you, or engage in play.
• Vision problems. Another symptom of diabetes in companion animals is blindness, which occurs when a whole host of inflammatory and degenerative eye complications occur secondary to high blood sugar.
• Urinary tract infections. It’s not uncommon for diabetic dogs to acquire secondary urinary tract infections. This happens because the more sugar there is in the urine, the greater the likelihood that bacteria will grow in the bladder.
• Kidney failure. Kidney disease is another common secondary symptom of diabetes. The sugar that is meant to be retained in your dog’s bloodstream spills over into the urine and is very damaging to the kidneys.
Treating canine diabetes can be complex and time-consuming. It involves regular monitoring of blood glucose levels, ongoing dietary adjustments, insulin given by injection or oral glucoseregulating medications.
Holistic veterinarians may prescribe nutraceuticals and herbs that can reduce the amount of insulin needed and may help better regulate dogs with hard-to-control diabetes. Ginkgo biloba, CoQ10, cinnamon, fenugreek, banaba leaf, lipoic acid, carnosine and garlic have all been used to help maintain healthy blood sugar levels in animals.
Gene therapy holds promise
In an exciting development documented in a 2013 study , researchers in Barcelona, Spain used a single gene therapy session to treat dogs with Type I diabetes. The dogs in the study regained their health and showed no further symptoms of disease. Some of the dogs were monitored for over four years with no recurrence of the condition.
The gene therapy given to the dogs in the Barcelona study is minimally invasive and consists of a series of injections in the rear legs. The injections contain gene therapy vectors that express both the insulin and glucokinase genes. Glucokinase is an enzyme that controls the uptake of glucose from the blood. Acting together, the genes function as a sensor that automatically regulates the uptake process, decreasing excesses of blood sugar.
The researchers believe their study demonstrates the safety and effectiveness of gene therapy using a new generation of vectors known as adeno-associated vectors derived from nonpathogenic viruses. The treatment involves transferring two genes to a muscle in the rear leg.
The dogs in the study, once treated, experienced good glucose control across the board, whether fasting or eating. This is a better result than what daily insulin injections provide, and there were also no episodes of hypoglycemia, even after the dogs were exercised. In addition, the study dogs experienced improved body weight and developed no secondary complications four years after treatment.
“The study is the first to report optimal long-term control of diabetes in large animals,” reported Medical News Today. “This had never before been achieved with any other innovative therapies for diabetes. The study is also the first to report that a single administration of genes to diabetic dogs is able to maintain normoglycemia over the long term (more than four years). As well as achieving normoglycemia, the dogs had normal levels of glycosylated proteins and developed no secondary complications of diabetes after more than four years with the disease.”
The researchers believe the excellent results achieved with diabetic dogs can eventually translate to gene therapy treatment of diabetes in veterinary medicine, and ultimately, human medicine. While the news of a diabetes cure for dogs is certainly encouraging and exciting, as always, there are many hurdles the treatment must overcome before it becomes an option available to us, your real life veterinarians.
Canine diabetes may be prevented with a few simple lifestyle changes (see sidebar). Even if your dog has already been diagnosed with this serious condition, a healthy diet, adequate exercise and weight control, along with an integrative treatment plan, can help manage the condition.