Type 1 Diabetes (the type which affects dogs) arises when the pancreas is not able to provide sufficient insulin. Insulin is required to help control and balance blood sugar levels, and to ensure that the glucose in the blood is able to reach the cells of the body, where it’s needed. Like humans, some dogs can also develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy, but this resolves shortly after the litter is delivered.
Type 2 diabetes (the type which affects humans and cats) is caused by insulin resistance, is linked to diet and obesity. Type 2 diabetes isn’t thought to affect dogs.
How diabetes affects pets
An insulin deficiency prevents glucose from entering the cells and causes blood sugar levels to become too high, which is compounded by the release of glycogen form the liver. Levels of glucose in the urine are also increased in diabetes. Since the cells can’t metabolize the glucose they need, the pet begins to feel weak, hungry and thirsty—and to urinate excessively in an attempt to remove the some of the excess blood sugar. Side effects of diabetes include inflammation of the pancreas (whose role is to produce insulin), weight loss, urinary tract problems and cataracts.
Diabetes has become very common in the United States in recent years. An overload of refined carbohydrates (sugars), processed foods, sweet treats and excessive grains are thought to be the main contributors to what has become for dogs (just as for humans), an epidemic. Diabetes is almost unheard of in pets who consumer a healthy, properly balanced, whole food diet and a healthy lifestyle—though some diabetes cases are thought to have a genetic link.
Obese pets are less likely to be responsive to insulin and also more likely to suffer from pancreatitis, which can lead to diabetes. Older pets are far more susceptible to diabetes than younger ones. Animals with auto-immune problems are likely to be more prone to diabetes because of the damage to the pancreas.
What types of foods do holistic vets recommend?
More frequent, smaller meals regularly spaced throughout the day, are recommended for diabetes patients, as this can help to maintain blood sugar levels and lessen the risk of over-burdening the pancreas. A natural diet that contains plenty of vitamin E helps reduce the animal’s need for insulin. An article by Mary Strauss and CJ Puotinen in the May 2012 Whole Dog Journal, states “Only a few nutritional studies have been done on dogs with diabetes. Different dogs respond differently to varying amounts of fiber and carbohydrates, and dietary needs vary depending on whether a dog is underweight or overweight, so there is no “best diet” for this disease.”
Most diabetic dogs do well with moderate to slightly increased amounts of dietary fiber, which is the indigestible portion of plant foods. Carbohydrates have the biggest effect on blood sugar levels. The more carbs in the food, the more blood sugar levels are likely to soar (and subsequently plummet) and the more insulin is required. With diabetes, the aim is to keep the amount of carbohydrates in the diet steady—which in turn balances out insulin needs and maintains more balanced blood sugar levels.
The glycemic index measures how quickly and dramatically a food will increase blood sugar levels. High-glycemic foods like white rice, corn syrup and other simple, refined carbohydrates cause a rapid rise in blood glucose levels. Low-glycemic foods like veggies, whole grains, most fruits and other complex carbohydrates, will release glucose slowly and steadily. Medium-glycemic foods include sweet potatoes, white potatoes, and honey.
In many cases, the more processed a carbohydrate (such as those found in processed diets for dogs with GI sensitivities), the higher the glycemic index will become.
A diet with normal or increased protein content is helpful for diabetes, especially for overweight dogs and for underweight dogs with muscle wasting or EPI. Some dogs suffer with concurrent diseases such as pancreatitis and Cushings Disease and in these cases, a lower fat diet may be recommended. Very high fat diets aren’t recommended for diabetic dogs.
To find holistic help with your pet's diabetes, see our list of integrative veterinarians and holistic practitioners.
Lucy Postins is founder and Chief Integrity Officer at The Honest Kitchen. She is a companion animal nutritionist who started The Honest Kitchen in her kitchen in 2002. She is passionate about advanced nutrition and holistic health including complementary modalities such as herbalism and homeopathy. Considered an expert in her field, Lucy frequently writes articles for local and national media, conducts radio interviews and educational spots, and occasionally holds educational seminars for pet owners on the importance of good nutrition. She also recently authored Dog Obsessed, a guide to a happier, healthier life for the pup you love.