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Much like humans, diabetes in dogs is on the rise. The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine recently reported a 32% increase in canine cases from 2007 to 2012. While the warning signs may be present in a dog, they often go undetected for a year or more. This story can hopefully provide some insights into how to detect diabetes in dogs and how to treat it, if these alarming statistics befall your pet.
Hyperglycemia vs Hypoglycemia
Gunner, a Gordon Setter in his eleventh year (the black dog pictured below on the left), lies quietly under a chair in the examining room at the Florida Veterinary League in Vero Beach. Dr. Francisco Torrado explains to Gunner’s owner how to test Gunner’s blood glucose so an appropriate dose of twice-daily insulin can be prescribed. “When we hear the dog is drinking more water, has increased hunger but still seems to be losing weight, we want to check for diabetes with a blood and urine sample”, Dr. Torrado explains. “Glucose is one of the essential nutrients needed by the body but sometimes absorption is a problem. Cells cannot absorb the glucose being produced, so it gets dumped into the urine and the blood all at once. When we see high levels in the blood, we suspect diabetes as the number 1 culprit.” He advises getting a urine test strip to check for ketones in the dog’s urine. Very high sugar levels is called Hyperglycemia.
In contrast, Hypoglycemia occurs when the glucose, or blood sugar, is too low. Signs include sluggishness, lack of coordination, lethargy and confusion. These indicate the need to step in immediately with a spoonful of honey or Karo syrup to bring levels back up. Both Hypoglycemia and Hyperglycemia require blood glucose testing to find out each dog’s correct insulin dose.
Testing for Dog Diabetes
I gained some experience with the testing procedure when helping to make the ‘curve’ chart for Gunner. This involves getting a blood glucose reading at intervals throughout the day. Gunner was tested prior to his first insulin shot of the day and before he eats breakfast. The second test was 30 minutes or so after his insulin shot and his meal, which are given simultaneously. Another test mid-morning, midday, then another before his dinner and shot (ideally 11 to 12 hours after his first shot of insulin and breakfast), then another test 30 minutes after his dinner and insulin shot. Dr. Torrado explains that in treating diabetes with insulin, the goal to level out the high and low reading so the ’curve’ chart looks gentle and does not show big hills and valleys. Once treatment starts, the dog would not have drastic changes in his blood sugar levels throughout the day.
The test kit looks just like one for people, but calibrated to dogs. We prick Gunner in the elbow callous, a popular testing site that has enough capillary blood to enable testing. We then slip the test strip under the tiny blood drop that appears and the signal beep from the test unit tells us we have a reading. The testing procedure is really a 2 person job, since someone needs to keep the dog calm and find the blood dot while the other person inserts the test strip into the meter. This proves more challenging than actually giving the insulin shots. Based on all the readings throughout the day, it is determined that Gunner’s blood sugar numbers are high, in the 380 to 480 range making him lean toward Hyperglycemia, and so his insulin dose is increased very slightly. Although his numbers would ideally fall between 100 and 200, no two dogs are alike and the levels tolerated by one would send another into renal failure. Testing the blood sugar at the outset of diagnosis is the best way to customize treatment.
Symptoms to Watch for Diabetes in Dogs
As dogs age, we can watch for warning signs of diabetes:
- Increased thirst (Polydipsia)
- Urinates frequently and has more volume (Polyurea)
- Increase in hunger but the dog seems to lose weight (Polyphagia)
- Cloudy eyes (diabetes causes cataracts)
- Redness in the whites of the eyes (needs immediate veterinary attention)
We can help keep dogs healthy by maintaining a good weight and not feeding ‘people’ food. Watch the treats you feed, too; many are high in sugar. Be sure your dog is getting ample exercise and yearly checkups; twice yearly for senior dogs. If your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, help is on the way. Once the blood sugar testing curve is completed and a proper dose of insulin prescribed, shots can be easily administered by almost anyone. Prescription dog food that is low in fat is another weapon to fight the disease. Gunner is feeling frisky again since his last insulin dose adjustment brought his blood sugar numbers down and his owner tells me he is back to running squirrels out of the yard.