When your dog develops a condition that requires close monitoring and routine treatment, it’s understandably stressful. Diabetes definitely fits the bill. In dogs, diabetes is generally characterized by a lack of insulin, the hormone that controls, and lowers, blood sugar (known as glucose). Every owner of a diabetic dog knows that two things are critical to managing the condition: regular meals and corresponding doses of insulin. Dog diabetes is more like type 1 diabetes in kids than type 2. (Type 2 is found more commonly in adult humans and cats, generally arises from obesity, and occurs when the cells of the body become resistant to normal amounts of insulin, as opposed to a lack of insulin production.)
Below, we’ll take a closer look at dog diabetes diets and other tips for managing the condition.
What Do You Feed a Diabetic Dog?
First things first: what do you feed a diabetic dog? There are several considerations, but the most important thing you can do is to be consistent. Diabetic dogs should be fed the same diet routinely, on the same schedule—ideally twice a day in most cases, to pair with insulin dosing.
In choosing a diet for a dog with diabetes, here are some factors to consider and discuss with your vet:
Fat content. A large number of dogs with diabetes acquired the condition because they had chronic pancreatitis, which affects the pancreas, the organ that produces insulin among other functions. These dogs often have a history of vomiting or diarrhea in the past. If pancreatitis has been previously diagnosed or is suspected, a diet with less than 30 grams of fat per 1,000 calories is ideal. Read more about feeding by calorie rather than by food weight here.
Protein content. Dogs with diabetes, especially before it’s well-controlled, may have poor muscle mass. Additional protein helps to maintain muscle and provide adequate amino acids for rebuilding muscle. Overweight dogs that are also diabetic certainly benefit from more protein in the diet when losing weight under veterinary supervision. I target at least 75 grams of protein per 1,000 calories.
Fiber and carbohydrate content. The ideal carbohydrate content for dogs is hotly debated by owners, but dogs are pretty flexible in what they can tolerate. This said, it’s likely a good idea to avoid very high-carbohydrate diets—they may increase insulin dosing and also cause glucose levels to spike after meals. I tend to look for diets with less than 90 grams per 1,000 calories of carbs. (The exception is when a low-fat diet is needed, in which case you’d want to increase the carb and protein content.) Fiber—which is tied to how a dog’s body processes carbohydrates—comes in two forms: soluble fiber, which has prebiotic effects, and insoluble fiber, which isn’t digested by the dog or by gut bacteria. Fiber has been used to slow carbohydrate release to prevent blood sugar spikes and reduce the energy density of foods, but it also may reduce palatability. (Note, I personally haven’t seen dramatic benefits in diabetic dogs as a result of increasing fiber.)
Treats for Diabetic Dogs
Many owners, wanting to reward their furry best friends, also wonder what to feed a diabetic dog for treats. My advice is to avoid too many treats and supplemental foods, as feeding them throughout the day can cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate. Consistency is as important with treats as it is with diet. If your dog is diabetic, give treats cautiously and close to mealtimes—doing so helps keep blood sugar levels more stable.
I prefer high-protein treats—dehydrated meat treats work well and most dogs enjoy them. For an overweight dog on a weight-loss plan, you can also give low-calorie training treats in moderation. They’re often 2 to 3 calories each and widely available .
All in all, try to keep the total number of calories from treats to less than 5 percent. For a 50-pound diabetic dog eating about 1,000 calories total per day, that means treats should total no more than 50 calories per day.
Tips for Caring for a Diabetic Dog
The biggest success factor in keeping your diabetic dog well controlled is routine. Follow these tips:
Get comfortable administering insulin. The process is pretty straightforward, but it’s a good idea to have your veterinary team show you how to do it. I also suggest demonstrating your technique to them, so they can verify you’re doing it correctly.
Stick to a schedule. Carefully follow the insulin and feeding guidelines provided by your vet. Most diabetic dogs should be fed twice daily around the time of their insulin administration.
Have a plan if your dog doesn’t eat. Get your vet’s advice here—it may involve cutting your dog’s normal dose of insulin in half.
Monitor your dog’s urine or blood sugar according to your vet’s preference. If your dog has gained or lost weight, it’s a good idea to update your vet as insulin dosing may need to change.
Be consistent with diet. Realistically, diabetic dogs can be fed a number of commercial or balanced home-prepared diets. If the diet changes, the insulin dose may need to change as well—at the least, it’s a good idea to recheck your dog’s glucose levels any time his food changes.
Avoid overdoing treats or supplemental foods. As I mentioned above, consistency is key with any diabetic dog’s diet. Tread lightly with anything outside regularly scheduled meals.
Exercise your dog regularly. Exercise has a host of benefits for all pets, but may also help with keeping blood sugar levels stable and maintenance of weight.
Ensure your pet is at an ideal body weight. If your dog is overweight, talk to your vet about how to safely reduce calories to achieve ideal rates of weight loss. And remember that as your dog gets slimmer, the insulin dose may need to go down.