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Diabetic Dog Food: Diet Change as a Treatment Option

“Your dog has diabetes.” Hearing those words can be devastating for any dog owner. Worst-case scenarios run through your mind, with visions of insulin shots and cataracts … and even the possibility that the Big D diagnosis equals a shorter lifespan. Unfortunately, more and more people are hearing just this diagnosis lately. According to the State of Pet Health 2016 Report by the research team at Banfield Pet Hospital, the prevalence of diabetes in U.S. dogs has increased by nearly 80 percent since 2006.
Even though the numbers are rising, the news isn’t all bad. Small measures can go a long way toward preventing and treating the disease — and simple dietary changes are a large part of that. “Diabetes doesn’t have to be scary,” says Laurie Coger, D.V.M., a holistic veterinarian, and author. “The first thing I tell people after a diabetes diagnosis is to switch to fresh food, and they are intrigued by that.”

Diabetic Dog Food Guide by Darwin's Pet Food

Diabetes in Dogs: What Is It?

Even though we hear the word often, diabetes can be a confusing and frequently misunderstood disease. You probably know it’s something about sugar, but the rest of the details may be fuzzy. Having a solid understanding of what the disease entails can help you understand how diet can help your diabetic dog.

dr judy morgan dvm holistic vetDiabetes occurs when the pancreas decreases the production of the hormone insulin or has a decreased response to the insulin that is released, according to Judy Morgan, D.V.M., and author of “From Needles to Natural: Learning Holistic Pet Healing.” Insulin’s role is to help your body utilize sugar into energy, so when its role is impaired or halted, it results in high blood sugar (also known as high blood glucose). Type 1 diabetes, which is more typically found in dogs, occurs when the body cannot produce insulin (also referred to as “insulin-deficiency”). Type II diabetes, less common in canines, is also called insulin-resistant, which occurs when the pancreas makes insulin but the body’s cells don’t respond to it.

What does it mean when you have high blood sugar? Think about it this way: When you eat, your body breaks down your meal into sugar, or glucose, to utilize it. This is when your pancreas kicks in, to produce insulin. But when there’s not enough insulin in the blood, your body then turns to fat to burn as energy and produces poisonous acidic chemicals called ketones into your bloodstream. Left undiagnosed and untreated, those ketones can build up, increasing blood acidity and even poisoning the body and reading life-threatening levels. Uncontrolled diabetes takes a heavy toll on virtually every organ in your body, including eyes, kidneys, heart and blood vessels, nerves, gastrointestinal tract, and teeth and gums.

Symptoms, Causes, & Risk Factors for Canine Diabetes

As with any disease in dogs, diagnosing it can potentially be tricky — after all, it’s not like your dog can tell you about their symptoms. Yet it’s important to diagnose diabetes because the disease can lead to complications such as cataracts, glaucoma, impaired immunity, liver disease, weakness, lethargy, drooling, and even seizures or death.

Luckily, though, symptoms of diabetes are pretty easy for a dog owner to spot, including the following:

  • Excessive thirst and hunger unrelated to increased activity
  • Frequent urination and/or recurring urinary tract infections
  • Lethargy
  • Weight loss despite normal food consumption
  • Chronic skin infections
  • Sweet-smelling breath (in fact, the medical term for the disease is diabetes mellitus, which is a Latin term for “honey sweet”)

While the symptoms can make diabetes relatively easy to pinpoint, the causes and risk factors are not as clear-cut, and include a variety of factors:

  • Age: The average age of diagnosis is between seven and 10 years
  • Weight: Overweight dogs are at increased risk
  • Gender: Females are more likely to develop diabetes than males
  • Genetics: Say no more!
  • Pre-existing Conditions: Pancreatitis and autoimmune diseases can contribute to diabetes risk
  • Breeds: Mixed breeds are more likely to develop diabetes, as are breeds such as golden retrievers, miniature schnauzers and pinschers, Keeshonds, poodles, Samoyeds, Bichon Frises, terriers, Siberian Huskies, and dachshunds.

While you obviously can’t control factors like your dog’s age, gender, or breed, the easiest way to prevent and control diabetes is with diet, which we’ll explore next.

Diabetes Treatment Options for Dogs

After your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, you will talk with your vet about next steps. Though diabetes can’t be cured, the disease can be monitored and managed through various methods.

  • Diet: The first thing a vet will want to do, after a diagnosis of diabetes, is to ask you what’s in your dog’s dish. “A lot of times it’s low-quality, high-carbohydrate kibble diets that are to blame,” Morgan reports, “and simply making a diet change might just be enough to see positive results in blood-sugar levels.”
  • Exercise: It’s vital that dogs with diabetes have a regular regime consisting of moderate exercise. This can help keep glucose levels even, with minimal increases and decreases.
  • Insulin Treatment: Dogs with diabetes may need shots of insulin each day. While it’s normal to be nervous, this procedure generally becomes a simple part of pets and owners’
  • Regular Monitoring: Even as you work toward improving your dog’s health, it’s important to monitor their diabetes. You may require a glucose-monitoring system to check levels regularly, and you should watch for signs of any changes in your dog’s health.

As you get used to monitoring and managing your dog’s condition, be sure to ask your vet if you have questions or concerns.

Digging in Deeper: Diet Change as a Diabetes Treatment Option

A nutritious diet is vital to dogs’ health and well-being. So what should you be feeding to reduce diabetes risk, then? Above all, remember that the common theme is to look for foods that do not cause a rapid spike in blood sugar. Foods with a low or zero glycemic indexes are best because those foods are more slowly digested, absorbed, and metabolized — which results in a slower rise in blood glucose. (To learn more about glycemic index in foods, visit the American Diabetes Association website.)

  • Low in Carbohydrates: “The first thing I do after a diabetes diagnosis is tell a client, ‘Okay, we’re going to have to move away from carbs,’” says Dr. Morgan. Carbohydrates, she explains, make it harder for the body to regulate its blood-sugar levels, so by eliminating them she can see where the blood-sugar level really is, and take treatment from there. Carbs with a lower glycemic index value are better, as mentioned above.
  • Low to Moderate Fats: A diet with low to moderate fat will help control obesity, a common risk factor for diabetes. The American Diabetes Association recommends a general diabetes diet of 30 percent or less from fat, particularly saturated fat.
  • Moderate to High in Fiber: Dietary fiber helps regulate blood sugar by slowing your body’s breakdown of carbohydrates and absorption of sugar.
  • High in Protein: Protein is easily digestible and sticks around in the system longer, which helps satiation and means a slower and smaller rise in blood sugar.

Types of Diets for Canine Diabetes: Dry, Canned, Raw, & Prescription

While you may think that altering your dog’s diet is as simple as picking up a bag of “diabetic” dog food, that’s not exactly true, Dr. Coger says. “Many times, these prescription diabetic foods are touting themselves as such because they are high in fiber and have moderate fat content, but they are also typically high in starch, which turns into sugar,” she says. “Basically, a lot of times companies want to sell us products using the raw materials they already have.”

Let’s take a look at the different types of diabetic dog food and how they fit into the diabetic spectrum we outlined above:

  • Dry Diets: Typically high in (often low-quality) carbohydrates, dry diets also have a disadvantage because they don’t provide much-needed hydration for diabetic dogs, and the protein is typically not meat-based.
  • Canned Diets: While canned diets do offer that extra hydration and are a better choice for diabetic dogs, the quality of protein is typically lower — not to mention all those preservatives and additives. “It’s amazing how much sugar is disguised on labels,” Morgan says. “It’s called dextrose, sucrose, corn syrup, you name it. You have to really scan the label to see what’s actually in there.”
  • Raw, Meat-Based Diets: It makes sense: Dogs have evolved from being primarily meat-eaters and didn’t have the diabetes problem we do today in the grain-based, high-carbohydrate kibble era. Raw, meat-based diets naturally fit into the diabetes-friendly spectrum, with high-protein, low-fat, and low-carbohydrates — with vegetables that are high on the glycemic index to provide fiber. Since raw food is natural, you’re also assured of no harmful additives and preservatives that sneak into canned and dry food.

“I’ve seen instances, where taking an obese diabetic dog off kibble and putting him on a raw food diet, can instantly serve to regulate blood sugar because you don’t have so many sugars to break down,” says Dr. Morgan. (To see one dog’s weight loss journey after starting a raw diet, read all about Olive on Darwin’s blog.)

While a diabetes diagnosis may be startling at first, treating the disease can be easier than you think. Two key factors stand out: diet and exercise. Moving away from high-carbohydrate kibble to natural raw food and making sure your dog gets plenty of exercise is often the first routes toward successfully managing diabetes. (Of course, your first step should always be to seek the consultation of a vet to get a proper diagnosis and to begin on a mutually agreed upon treatment plan.) “I’ve seen cases where a client doesn’t even need insulin after all just from changing their dog’s diet to raw food,” Dr. Morgan says. “You can see results in blood-sugar levels within a week just from changing their diet, and people are amazed!”

Getting a Finicky Dog to Eat: Turn Dinnertime Into a Game!

Medical conditions like diabetes can sometimes take a toll on a dog’s appetite. So if your dog is starting to turn his snoot up at food, it’s time to get creative and take matters into your hands: in some cases, literally. Tips like hand-feeding (try it, it works!), mixing in some water or other “people food” like eggs or cottage cheese, can turn on the appetite button in some dogs. Or turn “dinnertime” into a game: place treats or meals into a Kong or Buster Cube can get them interested in mealtime again (Think of it like feeding a baby, turning “feeding time” into a game).

Treat Time

And don’t forget about the treats! The best treats say’s Dr. Coger, are made of raw meat. “If you really want to dazzle them, try making your own jerky using Darwin’s food using a food dehydrator,” she suggests. Fruits and green vegetables like broccoli are also good for diabetics due to their high fiber content, which helps stabilize blood sugar levels. “Our rule of thumb is to feed nothing that grows below the ground,” says Dr. Coger. This includes starchy vegetables like potatoes and high-sugar carrots.

Try Raw Dog Food for Optimal Health

Darwin’s raw dog meals — single-meat meals of beef, chicken, duck, and turkey — are made with 75% meat and 25% vegetables for a balanced, high-protein, moderate fat and low-carbohydrate meal. The meals contain no grains, gluten, fillers, or artificial substitutes. If you’d like to see how Darwin’s meals can improve your dog’s health, check out the special introductory offer.

VETERINARIAN Q& A

We talked with Laurie Coger, DVM, to discover how raw food can help a diabetic dog and asked her about her favorite Darwin’s dog treat.

  1. Can you really see a noticeable difference in a diabetic dog just from diet alone?
    • You’d be amazed. I’ve seen diabetic dogs that start off with dull coats, bloated, and you put them on real food and they start to look like they’re healthy again.
  2. Is dry food really such a big factor in diabetes?
    • Yes… We’re feeding dogs contrary to what their natures are, and now we’re seeing how bad that can be for them. When we feed a dog a 90 percent dry food, it automatically means a dog needs a lot more water, when they are designed to have 50 percent moisture in their food. Not to mention, its 40 percent starch, this breaks down into sugar. How are we going to regulate a dog’s blood sugar with so much sugar in its system?
  3. What would you recommend if you were going to choose one treat for a diabetic dog?
    • I would highly recommend Darwin’s tripe. It’s by far the best I’ve ever seen, and it’s such great quality.