Diabetes Mellitus - Principles of Treatment in Dogs

Diabetes Mellitus - Principles of Treatment in Dogs

This handout provides detailed information on the principles of treatment in diabetes mellitus.  For more information about diabetes mellitus and its treatment, see the fact sheets "Diabetes Mellitus - General Information", and "Diabetes Mellitus - Insulin Treatment".


What is diabetes mellitus?


Diabetes mellitus is caused by the failure of the pancreas to regulate blood sugar. In the dog, diabetes mellitus is usually Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus (also called Type 2 Diabetes). This type of diabetes usually results from destruction of most or all of the beta-cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. As the name implies, dogs with this type of diabetes require insulin injections to stabilize blood sugar levels.

Insulin regulates the level of glucose in the bloodstream and controls the delivery of glucose to the tissues of the body. The clinical signs seen in diabetes mellitus are related to the elevated concentrations of blood glucose and the inability of the body to use glucose as an energy source.

Some people with diabetes take insulin shots, and others take oral medication. Is this true for dogs?

In humans, there are two types of diabetes mellitus. Both types are similar in that there is a failure to regulate blood sugar, but the basic mechanisms of disease differ somewhat between the two.

"Type I Diabetes Mellitus is the most common type of diabetes in dogs."

Type I Diabetes Mellitus (sometimes also caused Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus), results from total or near-complete destruction of the beta-cells. This is the most common type of diabetes in dogs. As the name implies, dogs with this type of diabetes require insulin injections to stabilize blood sugar.

Type II Diabetes Mellitus (sometimes called Non-insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus), is different because some insulin-producing cells remain. However, the amount of insulin produced is insufficient, there is a delayed response in secreting it, or the tissues of the dog's body are relatively resistant to it (also referred to as insulin resistance). Type II diabetes may occur in older obese dogs. People with this form may be treated with an oral drug that stimulates the remaining functional cells to produce or release insulin in an adequate amount to normalize blood sugar. Unfortunately, dogs tend not to respond well to these oral medications and usually need some insulin to control the disease.

How is diabetes mellitus treated in dogs? Is treatment expensive?

gloved hand holding syringe

Dogs with diabetes mellitus require one or more daily insulin injections, and almost all require some sort of dietary change. In general, they must be fed the same food in the same amount on the same schedule every day.  Although the dog can go a day or so without insulin and not have a crisis, this should not be a regular occurrence; treatment should be looked upon as part of the dog's daily routine. This means that you, as the dog's owner, must make both a financial commitment and a personal commitment to treat your dog. If are out of town or go on vacation, your dog must receive proper treatment in your absence. Once your dog is well regulated, the treatment and maintenance costs are minimal. The special diet, insulin, and syringes are not expensive. However, the financial commitment may be significant during the initial regulation process, or if complications arise.

Initially, your dog may be hospitalized for a few days to deal with any immediate crisis and to begin the insulin regulation process. The "immediate crisis" is only great if your dog is so sick that it has quit eating and drinking for several days. Dogs in this state, called diabetic ketoacidosis, may require a several days of intensive care. Otherwise, the initial hospitalization may be only for a day or two while the dog's initial response to insulin injections is evaluated. . At that point, your dog returns home for you to administer medication. At first, return visits are required every three to seven days to monitor progress. It may take a month or more to achieve good insulin regulation.

"It is important that you pay close attention to all instructions related to administration of medication, diet, and home monitoring."

The financial commitment may again be significant if complications arise. Your veterinarian will work with you to try to achieve consistent regulation, but some dogs are difficult to keep regulated. It is important that you pay close attention to all instructions related to administration of medication, diet, and home monitoring. One serious complication that can arise is hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, which can be fatal. This may occur due to inconsistencies in treatment.

What specifically is the treatment of diabetes?

Consistent treatment is a vital component of the proper management of the diabetic dog. Your dog needs consistent administration of insulin, consistent feeding, and a stable, stress-free lifestyle. Although it is not essential, your dog should live indoors, to minimize uncontrollable variables that can disrupt regulation.

"What your dog eats is important in the treatment of diabetes mellitus."

What your dog eats is important in the treatment of diabetes mellitus.  In dogs, diabetes mellitus has been shown to be a "fiber-responsive disease." Fiber is  a mainstay of a "low glycemic index" diet. Diabetic patients need to avoid the peaks of blood sugar related to eating a high carbohydrate diet. Fiber rich diets are preferred because they are generally lower in sugar and slower to be digested, meaning that their sugars are absorbed more slowly. This means that the dog does not have to process a large amount of sugar at one time. Additionally, the fiber may helpstimulate insulin secretion in Type II diabetes. Since obesity is a risk factor for diabetes mellitus and can make regulation difficult, a high fiber diet can have the added benefit of promoting appropriate weight loss for the Type II diabetic. Your veterinarian will discuss specific diet recommendations for your pet's needs.

"Your dog's feeding routine is also important."

Your dog's feeding routine is also important. Some owners feed their dogs by leaving food in the bowl at all times, so that the dog can eat whenever it wants (called free choice feeding). However, this is not the best way to feed a diabetic dog. The preferred way is to feed twice daily, just before each insulin injection. If your dog is currently eating on a free choice basis, it is important to try to make the change. If a two-meals-per-day feeding routine will not work for you, you must find some way to accurately measure the amount of food that is consumed and ideally to encourage your dog to eat the majority of the food at or around the time of insulin administration.

"The main treatment for regulating blood glucose is the administration of insulin by injection."
jar of insulin with injection syringe

In diabetic dogs, the main treatment for regulating blood glucose is the administration of insulin by injection. Many people are initially fearful of inflicting pain or harm by giving insulin injections. However, this fear is unfounded, since the disposable injection needles are extremely sharp and cause minimal pain, the insulin does not sting or otherwise hurt on injection, and the injections are given under the skin in areas where it is impossible to damage internal structures.

Specific details about the use and storage of insulin are provided in the separate fact sheet.

"Diabetes mellitus - Insulin Treatment".

Although the above procedures may at first seem complicated and somewhat overwhelming, they will very quickly become second nature.

 How often do diabetic dogs need to be monitored?

It is necessary that your dog's progress be checked on a regular basis. Monitoring is a joint project on which owners and veterinarians must work together.

What is involved in home monitoring?

Your part in the monitoring process involves two types of monitoring. First, you need to be constantly aware of your dog's appetite, weight, water consumption, and urine output. You should be feeding a consistent amount of food each day, which will allow you to be aware of changes in consumption. You should weigh your dog at least monthly and notify your veterinarian if there is any weight loss. It is best to use the same scales each time.

You should develop a way to measure water consumption. The average dog should drink no more than 7 1/2 oz. (225 ml) of water per 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of body weight per 24 hours. Since this is highly variable from one dog to another, keeping a record of your dog's water consumption for a few weeks will allow you to establish what is normal for your dog. You can get a rough estimate whether your dog's drinking is normal by counting the number of times it drinks each day. When properly regulated, it should drink no more than six times per day. If this is exceeded, you should take an accurate measurement.

"Any significant change in your dog's food intake, weight, water intake, or urine output is an indicator that the diabetes is not well controlled."

Any significant change in your dog's food intake, weight, water intake, or urine output is an indicator that the diabetes is not well controlled. We should see your dog at that time for blood testing.

The second method of home monitoring is to determine the presence of glucose in the urine. If your dog is properly regulated, there should be little to no glucose present in the urine.

There are several ways to detect glucose in urine. You may purchase urine glucose test strips in any pharmacy. They are designed for use in humans with diabetes, but they also work well in dogs. A fresh urine sample should be collected and tested with the test strip. It is ideal if you can test the first urine of the morning. Regardless of when you test the urine glucose, you need to try to be consistent. If you can test in the morning, try to perform all tests in the morning. If glucose is detected, the test should be repeated daily for the next two days. If there is urine glucose present each time, we should see your dog for a blood test.

You should keep a small container to catch urine as the dog urinates. The test strip requires only a small amount of urine. Because the female dog usually squats to urinate, a shallow pan or dish (disposable metal pie plates are ideal) may be placed under her hindquarters when she begins to urinate. For male dogs, urine can be collected as soon as the dog lifts the leg to void. Male dogs often urinate small amounts in several different places and often on vertical objects, such as bushes and trees.

How will my veterinarian monitor my dog's diabetes?

"...the blood glucose test and the fructosamine test."

There are two common blood tests that can be used to monitor your dog, the blood glucose test and the fructosamine test. One of these should be performed every three to four months if your dog seems to be well regulated. Testing should also be done at any time the clinical signs of diabetes are present or if glucose is detected in the urine for two consecutive days.

electrocardiogram machine for animals

Determining the level of glucose in the blood is the most commonly used blood test. Timing is important when the blood glucose is determined. Since eating will elevate the blood sugar for several hours, it is best to test the blood at least six hours after eating.

When testing the blood we want to know the highest and lowest glucose readings for the day. The highest blood sugar reading should occur just before an injection of insulin is given. The lowest should occur at the time of peak insulin effect. This is usually five to eight hours after an insulin injection, but it should have been determined during the initial regulation process.

Therefore, the usual procedure for measuring blood glucose as an "insulin-response curve" is as follows:

1)  Feed your dog its normal morning meal and then bring it to the hospital immediately before administering insulin. If you cannot get it to the hospital within thirty minutes, do not feed it. In that situation, bring your dog's food with you.

2)  Bring your dog to the hospital early in the morning before giving it insulin.

3)  A blood sample will be taken immediately and then we will give insulin and feed your dog if it did not eat at home.

4)  Blood samples may be taken every one to three hours throughout the day, generally for an eight- to ten-hour period. This will allow us to determine the peak insulin affect and how you pet is responding to insulin over the course of the day. This is often referred to as a "insulin-response curve."

If your dog gets too excited or very nervous when riding in the car or being in the hospital, the glucose readings may be falsely elevated. If this occurs, it is best to admit your dog to the hospital the morning (or afternoon) before testing so it can settle down for testing the next day. Otherwise, the tests give us limited information.

"For some dogs, this is the preferred test. It does not require fasting and can be performed at any time of the day."

The alternative test is called a fructosamine test. This test is an average of the blood glucose levels for the last two weeks. Stress and inconsistencies in diet and exercise have less effect on this test than on the blood glucose test. For some dogs, this is the preferred test. It does not require fasting and can be performed at any time of the day. There is still some controversy regarding the accepted normal ranges for dogs for this test. Your veterinarian will discuss this test and if it is appropriate for your dog's monitoring program.

Does hypoglycemia occur in dogs?

Hypoglycemia means low blood sugar. If the blood sugar falls below 40 mg/dl, it can be life threatening. Hypoglycemia generally occurs under two conditions:

1)  When the insulin dose is too high. Although most dogs will require the same dose of insulin for long periods of time, it is possible for the dog's insulin requirements to suddenly change. However, the most common causes for change are a reduction in food intake and an increase in exercise or activity. The dog should eat before giving the insulin injection, because once the insulin is administered it can't be removed from the body.  If your dog does not eat, skip that dose of insulin. If only half of the food is eaten, give only a half dose of insulin. Always remember that it is better in the short term for the blood sugar to be too high than too low.

2)  When too much insulin is given. This can occur because the insulin was not properly measured in the syringe or because two doses were given. You may forget that you gave it and repeat it, or two people in the family may each give a dose. A chart to record insulin administration will help to prevent the dog being treated twice.

The most likely time that a dog will become hypoglycemic is the time of peak insulin effect (5-8 hours after an insulin injection). When the blood glucose is only mildly low, the dog will act very tired and unresponsive. You may call it and get little or no response. Within a few hours, the blood glucose will rise, and your dog will return to normal. Since many dogs sleep a lot during the day, this important sign is easily missed. Watch for any subtle signs of hypoglycemia. It is the first sign of impending problems. If you see it, please bring your dog in for blood glucose testing.

If your dog is slow to recover from this period of lethargy, you should give it corn syrup (one tablespoon for every twenty pounds (15 mls/10 kg) by mouth). If there is no response within fifteen minutes, repeat administration of the corn syrup. If there is still no response, contact your veterinarian immediately for further instructions. This is an emergency. 

If severe hypoglycemia occurs, a dog may have seizures or lose consciousness. Ultimately, untreated hypoglycemia will lead to coma and death. This is an emergency that can only be reversed with intravenous administration of glucose. If it occurs during office hours, take your dog to the veterinarian's office immediately. If it occurs at night or on the weekend, call your veterinarian's emergency phone number for instructions.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Ernest Ward, DVM
© Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.