Diabetes, a simple explanation

Diabetes seems to be becoming increasingly common in dogs. Just like human diabetes in that respect, though I don’t know whether it’s for the same reasons. Diabetes can be difficult to understand and so this article is aimed at giving owners a basic appreciation of the condition. Before we start though just to set the scene;

  • Diabetes can’t be cured. There is no scientific evidence for a “cure” despite what some adverts may say. It can be treated and managed successfully though.
  • You can’t diagnose it yourself – though you can spot telltale symptoms. Your vet will then do a quick blood test to confirm it. It is life threatening if left untreated.
  • The vast majority of dogs with diabetes enjoy long and happy lives.

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When trying to understand diabetes you will hear the phrases “glucose/sugar levels” and “insulin” bandied around. You don’t have to understand it but if you want to then here is a simple explanation.

When your dog digest its food in the tummy then it is converted into fat, protein and sugar (converted from vegetables and grains in the food). All three of these can provide the energy for the cells, though sugar in the form of glucose provides most short term energy.

Insulin is a hormone produced by the body that allows glucose to pass from the bloodstream into the cells. Once in the cells then glucose is harmless. But if glucose is not able to get into the cells then it builds up to high levels in the blood. High blood glucose acts like a “poison” damaging vital organs such as kidneys and the liver, destroying nerve cells, and causing blindness. Really nasty effects from something we normally think of as harmless!

 

Diabetes is therefore always linked to insulin; either the body can’t produce it because the pancreas where it is made is not functioning properly – or it can be made OK but the system can’t use it properly to get glucose out of the bloodstream.

This is where the two different types of diabetes are differentiated. Insulin deficiency diabetes is where the pancreas makes no or little insulin. Insulin resistance diabetes is where insulin is produced but somehow the body can’t use it.

Insulin deficiency is the most common type in dogs by far and seems to be caused by a combination of both hereditary and lifestyle factors. It is treated by insulin injections and diet/exercise management. Properly treated your dog has a very good chance of leading a normal life.

Insulin resistance diabetes is rarer and usually linked to or caused by another disease (Cushing’s is a known cause for example) or is a side effect from drug treatment (steroids for example) for another condition. In these cases then the underlying cause has to be treated rather than the diabetes itself.

DIAGNOSIS

So our first and most important role as owners is to be sensitive to the symptoms that may result from diabetes.

Your dog may drink frequently and empty the water bowl more often.

Your dog may ask to go outside more often and may start having “accidents” in the house. Increased urination (and increased thirst) happens because the body is trying to get rid of excess sugar by sending it out through urine.

Your dog can lose weight despite eating normal portions. This is because the dog isn’t efficiently converting nutrients from its food.

Your dog can be very hungry all the time because the body’s cells aren’t getting all the glucose they need, even though the dog is eating a normal amount.

Dog: Retriever holding a food bowl on black

These are all early signs and that is why they must be acted on. Visit your vet and ask for a urine or blood test.

More advanced signs are cataracts, lethargy, depression and ultimately, a very poorly dog that may ultimately collapse.

 

TREATMENT

Your vet may prescribe regular insulin injections and will certainly give you advice on a controlled diet. You may have to buy special pet food. Daily exercise will be a must do. The only supplementation worth considering will be to ensure that your dog has sufficient trace minerals (chromium and vanadium especially) and  a seaweed supplement is best for this.

RISK FACTORS

The only risk factors that we have control of are diet and exercise. Too much starchy or, heaven forbid sweet food, may contribute to damage to the pancreas just as obesity can. Incidentally most diabetic dogs are obese. Adequate exercise reduces the risk of obesity.

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Factors that we can’t influence are age, gender and hereditary factors. It’s a middle age/senior condition with bitches being more prone than dogs.

IN CONCLUSION

Nearly all dogs with diabetes that receive treatment are able to lead a fulfilling life if the condition is diagnosed early. That’s our responsibility, remember our motto “Their Life Is In Your Hands”.

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