Vet Reviewed

By The Farmer's Dog | May 5, 2023

Diabetes is a serious illness that requires treatment and can be fatal—but in most cases it can be managed and affected dogs can live long, happy lives. We’ve put together some information about the condition below. If you suspect that your dog is afflicted with diabetes, the most important thing you can do is visit a vet as soon as possible to get a diagnosis and, if necessary, start working on a treatment plan.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus, the most common type of diabetes in dogs, is a disease in which the body fails to properly regulate its blood sugar levels. The pancreas plays an important role in keeping blood sugar within a normal range by producing insulin, a hormone that helps the body properly metabolize glucose. Diabetes usually involves a problem with that organ’s functioning due to an autoimmune disorder, an injury, or another health issue. Most dogs who develop diabetes are in their middle-aged or senior years.

There are two types of diabetes mellitus in dogs: insulin-dependent, which occurs due to a loss of cells that make insulin and is similar to type I in humans; and non-insulin-dependent, which is similar to type II in humans and more sensitive to shifts in diet and activity. Most diabetes in dogs is insulin-dependent, but lifestyle changes can still be helpful in prevention and treatment of the illness.

What causes diabetes in dogs?

Many issues can contribute to dogs developing diabetes. They include:

Genetics. Dogs who eat well and live healthy lifestyles can still develop diabetes, and many experts believe that this is due to a genetic predisposition. Certain breeds may be at a higher risk than others, and one study found that Australian Terriers are 32 times more likely to suffer from the condition than mixed-breed dogs.

Damage to the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis—inflammation of the pancreas—contributes to many cases of diabetes. This is because the pancreas produces insulin. The pancreas can become inflamed by dietary indiscretions, toxins, side effects of medications, or infections. Physical injuries can also lead to pancreatitis.

Side effects from medications. Steroids in particular can be a risk, especially when taken for a long time. Talk to your vet about the pros and cons of any medicine for your pup.

Other diseases that can produce insulin resistance.  Cushing’s disease, in which a dog’s body produces too much of the hormone cortisol, can lead to complications including diabetes. Other illnesses—like acromegaly, in which a dog produces excess growth hormone—can do the same.

Obesity. Dogs who are obese may become insulin-resistant and have trouble processing glucose. These issues can make diabetes harder to treat. And some experts say that the pancreas problems associated with obesity may predispose dogs to diabetes.

Heat or pregnancy. Sometimes an unspayed female dog can develop symptoms of diabetes during a heat or pregnancy, and they may resolve after the end of her cycle. Many vets recommend spaying female dogs with diabetes to make the condition easier to manage, as the estrus cycle can make her insulin needs less consistent than those of an altered dog.

What are the signs of diabetes in dogs?

Signs that a dog may have diabetes include:

Increased thirst and urination. When a dog has high blood sugar, their kidneys can send that sugar into urine to get it out of the body. Dogs that urinate a lot will try to replace the water they’re losing by drinking more. 

Weight loss, even if they’re eating a lot. Dogs with diabetes undergo significant changes to their metabolism as a consequence of the disease. As a result, they may shed pounds even though they seem to be eating a normal or especially large amount of food.

Cloudy eyes. One complication associated with diabetes in dogs is cataracts. Keeping the illness under control can improve a dog’s chances of avoiding them, but they are very common. Treatments for cataracts can include surgery, which is usually successful at restoring vision. If a dog does become blind, in most cases they can adjust and live a happy life with some extra care and supervision.

Frequent infections. Dental and urinary tract infections are especially common in diabetic dogs.

How do veterinarians diagnose diabetes in dogs?

If your veterinarian suspects that your dog may have diabetes, they’ll perform blood tests and urinalysis. They’ll also check a dog’s blood pressure. Blood sugar is a key piece of information that will help the vet determine whether a dog is diabetic, but they’ll also look for other information to determine the extent of the problem and whether there are any complicating factors.

How is diabetes treated in dogs?

If your dog has diabetes, you and your veterinarian will work together on a treatment plan. While there’s no cure for the condition, dogs can live normal lives if it’s managed well.

Effective treatment of a dog’s diabetes requires attention to detail, and insulin doses can change over time. It may take some trial and error to figure out how different doses and dietary choices impact your dog’s blood-sugar levels.

Once you figure out a program that works, consistency is key in successful treatment—feeding your dog the same amounts at the same times, and keeping their activity steady, are vital. Keep track on paper or digitally, with a system that works for you. A pre-portioned meal plan isn’t the only way to feed exactly the same amount at the same times each day, but it can make the task easier.

In the event that you want to change a diabetic dog’s activity level, either temporarily or over the long run, talk to a vet first. You may be able to safely shift how much your dog exercises while also adjusting insulin doses, but should not try to figure out how to do that on your own—making the wrong guess could have life-threatening consequences for your pup.

If a dog seems very hungry or thirsty, or is urinating much more than usual, that could mean that their blood sugar or glucose level is too high (hyperglycemia). A vet can confirm this with blood tests. And, regardless of any signs, you and your vet should have a blood-testing schedule in place for a diabetic dog.

If your dog has low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), on the other hand, they may be lethargic, have tremors, have difficulty walking, or even become comatose. If you see any signs of hypoglycemia, call your vet right away—it’s a medical emergency.

Managing your dog’s diabetes can be challenging, but it’s achievable. If you’re ever unsure about how to proceed, reach out to your veterinary healthcare team—they’re there to support you and your pup.

How can I protect my dog from diabetes?

According to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, up to 1% of dogs develop diabetes at some point in their lives. Because of the genetic factors mentioned earlier, it’s not possible to guarantee that any dog won’t encounter the disease. 

However, there are steps you can take to improve their chances of a life without it. Feeding your dog a healthy, complete and balanced diet is one factor that’s within your control—giving them the right amount of food on a consistent schedule can help maintain an ideal body condition.

Similarly, giving your dog an appropriate amount of exercise—not trying to turn every dog into a world-class athlete, but affording them ample opportunities to explore and play—can be a boon as you try to keep them at a healthy weight. Obesity is a risk factor not only for diabetes, but also for many other common ailments in homed dogs. And, of course, physical and mental exercise have other benefits for your pup.

Finally, get to know your dog and pay close attention to the signals they give you. A strong sense of their baseline will help you detect any unusual behaviors or other signs that they may be ill. And if, despite your best efforts, they become sick, you’ll be in a better position to get them the care they need.

No matter what, remain calm and know that you’re taking an important step to caring for your pup by learning the signs of diabetes and what to do if you encounter it. And never hesitate to ask a veterinary professional for advice—they’re the experts on how to help a diabetic dog stay as healthy as possible.