What Causes Diabetes In Dogs? The Signs, Symptoms And What To Do About It

Dog with diabetes

Did you know one out of every 300 dogs is diagnosed with diabetes? Especially in senior and middle aged dogs, diabetes is becoming frighteningly common in dogs today.

Once your dog gets diabetes, he will most likely need insulin for the rest of his life. So it’s really important to do everything you can to prevent your dog from becoming diabetic.

There are many things that can contribute to the risk of your dog getting diabetes … but the good news is, there are also lots of things you can do to help prevent it and minimize the risk.

Jean Hovfe

So we called on an expert to tell us how to do that. At Raw Roundup 2017, Dr Jean Hofve gave a talk on canine diabetes and its connection to diet and environmental factors and the best ways to prevent it.

But first, what is diabetes and what’s the difference between the two types of the disease?

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is all about glucose and how the body handles it. All cells use glucose as their primary source of energy.

The pancreas produces the hormones that control glucose … primarily insulin and glucagon. The pancreas is mostly made up of tissue that secretes digestive enzymes … but about 5% of the pancreas is made up of beta cells that produce insulin.The body’s cells need glucose for energy – it’s their primary fuel. But glucose can’t get into those cells without the help of insulin. Dr Hofve explains insulin as the key to a lock … the cells need the “key” (insulin) to let the glucose in.

Cells in dogs with diabetes

When glucose can’t get into the cells without insulin, it builds up in the blood. This causes hyperglycemia, meaning too much sugar in the blood (hyper = too much, glyc = sugar and emia = in the blood)

This is why the pancreas and its creation of insulin is so important. And when it’s not working right, your dog can become diabetic.

Types Of Diabetes

There are two types of diabetes – and we’re starting with the last one first.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is usually due to obesity and eating too many carbohydrates. In type 2 diabetes, there is plenty of insulin production, but the body becomes resistant to it because there is too much sugar coming in. This type of diabetes is reversible in some cases.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common in people (90% of human diabetics have Type 2) – and it’s also the type of diabetes that cats get.

But dogs are different. Most diabetic dogs have Type 1 diabetes. And it’s a lot more serious.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is when the pancreas fails to produce insulin properly. This means glucose can’t get into the body’s cells to be used for energy. It’s quite dangerous, and it usually requires lifelong treatment with insulin shots. So you can see that preventing diabetes in dogs is really, really important.

Type 1 diabetes is not caused by diet – but diet is a huge factor in preventing and managing it.

Cells in dogs with diabetes

Dr Hofve has a lot of really good advice on how to do that. But first, how do you recognize the signs that your dog might have diabetes?

Signs Of Diabetes

  • Frequent urination – diabetic dogs drink a lot and pee a lot
  • Hunger – your dog will be extra hungry because his cells are screaming for glucose
  • Weight loss – because the cells can’t use sugar without insulin, your dog will start burning off tissue to produce more glucose, and he’ll lose weight
  • Vomiting – this is common if your dog also has pancreatitis
  • Weakness or fatigue

If you see these signs in your dog, you’ll want to have your vet test him for diabetes before his condition worsens.

Understanding what can increase the likelihood of diabetes is key to preventing it. So what are the risk factors?

Risk Factors For Diabetes

Here are some of the risk factors for diabetes – and we’ll get into more detail on each of these.

  • Auto-immunity
  • Breed or genetics
  • GMOs (genetically modified organisms)
  • Inflammation
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Pancreatitis
  • Toxins
  • Vaccination
  • Diet


Autoimmunity means the body attacks its own tissue and destroys it. If the beta cells that make insulin in the pancreas get destroyed, this causes diabetes. Half of all canine diabetes cases are thought to be due to autoimmunity. It can be triggered by a number of things:

  • Infections
  • Drugs including antibiotics
  • Food allergies, irritable bowel disease, leaky gut syndrome
  • Toxins (heavy metals, mold, endocrine-disrupting chemicals)
  • Vaccination


Here’s a list of breeds that are prone to diabetes – but diabetes isn’t limited to these breeds … Any dog can get diabetes.

  • Alaskan Malamute
  • Beagle
  • Boxer
  • Cairn Terrier
  • Chow Chow
  • Dachshund
  • Doberman Pinscher
  • Finnish Spitz
  • German Shepherd Dog
  • Golden Retriever
  • Hungarian Puli
  • Keeshond
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Miniature Pinscher
  • Miniature Schnauzer
  • Old English Sheepdog
  • Poodle
  • Samoyed
  • Schipperke
  • Springer Spaniel
  • Tibetan Terrier
  • West Highland White Terrier

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

GMOs contain many toxins that can damage your dog’s body.

95% of corn and soy are genetically engineered and if you feed kibble, your dog is eating them – unless it’s organic.

GMOs are in Roundup weedkiller (glyphosate) and something called Bt toxin. Both are in and on crops at very high levels. Glyphosate is a highly toxic herbicide but Bt toxin is even more dangerous.

Bt Toxin

Bt toxin kills worms and larvae – and the really scary thing is that it’s made from bacteria so it’s considered organic. This means organic farmers can use it … but beware!  It’s a very, very vicious toxin.

Bt toxin is taken up in the cells of the plant, so when your dog (or the animal his meat comes from) eats the plant, he’ll then have Bt toxin in his system – along the whole digestive tract.

Bacteria transfer genes back and forth very easily. This means the Bt toxin gene gets into your dog’s own bacteria and he’ll have a Bt toxin factory in his gut that will operate for the rest of his life. The toxin can also continue through generations, because the mother passes it on to her puppies through the placenta.

This applies to you too. For example, if you get a steak in a restaurant, it was likely fed GMO corn, so you will get the gene through the meat. Bt toxin then creates endocrine disrupting chemicals in the body and it’s very dangerous.


The reason they created GMOs was to prevent damage to crops, with the goal of making crops cheaper to feed more people. In theory, that’s a good goal. Except it’s not what happened.

Bugs and weeds are good at adapting to environment, so they learned to resist these toxins and started growing alongside corn that was produced to be resistant to toxins. So farmers added more and more herbicides to kill the resistant bugs and weeds.

And then there’s the wind, helping to spread it around. When you plant Roundup or Bt toxin-soaked plants upwind, the wind picks up the pollen and blows it. It can travel surprisingly far … glyphosate-contaminated pollen has been found 50 miles downwind, even years later.

These chemicals are in our food because they’re taken up by the plant … they’re inside the soybean and the corn and you can’t wash them off. These toxins cause oxidative stress and inflammation as well as DNA damage. They’re very dangerous and it’s really important to eat (or feed your dog) organic food as much as you can.


Inflammation isn’t all bad. It’s actually a normal body response that’s part of the healing process. It removes dead tissues and brings in immune cells to fight infection.

Inflammation can be caused by …

  • Injury
  • Infection
  • Stress
  • Certain foods (like sugar and gluten)
  • Body fat

Inflammation is only a problem if it gets out of hand. If this happens, it can cause pancreatitis, autoimmune disease, leaky gut and many other chronic diseases.

Metabolic Syndrome

In humans, metabolic syndrome is the name for a group of risk factors that raise the risk for  …

  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Kidney damage
  • Brain degeneration
  • Stroke

The term metabolic syndrome is now being used broadly for obese dogs who develop insulin resistance and other metabolic syndrome symptoms such as …

  • Obesity
  • Insulin resistance
  • Glucose intolerance
  • Vascular inflammation
  • Altered lipid profile (like high cholesterol)

There are disagreements among experts as to whether metabolic syndrome truly exists in dogs.

But it’s a chicken or egg situation – does diabetes cause metabolic syndrome, or vice versa? They do go hand in hand, so keep an eye on your dog for metabolic syndrome symptoms.


More than half of US dogs are overweight or obese … and there are more every year.

Dr Hofve feels most veterinarians don’t take obesity seriously enough, with many vets saying things like “Fluffy could lose a pound or two” … but not stressing the importance of weight loss nearly enough. [perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” size=””]She says chubby animals may be cute, but it’s actually serious abuse to let your dog become obese[/perfectpullquote]Excess weight causes arthritis, heart disease, skin problems, and more.

Fat cells secrete hormones and chemical messengers that promote inflammation. Obesity is a chronic pro-inflammatory state that contributes to risk factors for both pancreatitis and diabetes.

Weight loss is essential for good diabetes management. What your dog eats and how much you exercise him can make a big difference in his tendency to become diabetic.


The pancreas produces hormones and digestive enzymes.

25% of diabetic dogs have or have had pancreatitis. Pancreatitis destroys beta cells in the pancreas – and remember, beta cells are the ones that produce insulin.

Pancreatitis in dogs with diabetes

When the cells get inflamed, they swell up and get leaky. And when you have leaky gut, you get substances leaking into the blood stream that shouldn’t be there.  The digestive enzymes produced by the pancreas get loose and start destroying the surrounding tissue. They break it down and turn it into liquid (think about what happens if you leave an old bag of lettuce in the fridge by mistake – it turns into a bag of brown water!)

When the beta cells get destroyed, this causes diabetes because there’s no insulin being produced.

The most common cause of pancreatitis in dogs is dietary fat. This might be a one-time occurrence (like your dog getting into the garbage) or it could be chronic intake of a high fat diet.

About a quarter of all diabetic dogs have pancreatitis. So monitor your dog’s fat intake to help prevent pancreatitis and diabetes.


We talked about glyphosate and Bt toxins earlier. But there are other toxins that can contribute to the likelihood of diabetes.

  • BPA (Bisphenol A) And Other Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

Most people are aware that BPAs are contained in many plastic containers. But it’s in other places too – for example, the cash register receipts you get at the grocery store contain BPAs. Many cans are lined with plastic that contains BPAs as well. So do your research to avoid these substances, as they are linked to obesity as well as cancer.

  • Aflatoxin And Other Molds

Aflatoxin molds in dog food have led to illness and death of many pets. It’s almost impossible to have aflatoxin-free corn. It may be too moldy for human use but it’s still used in animal food. These molds can also contaminate meat and fish – and nobody’s testing for that!

  • Vaccines – This Is Another Big Topic So Keep Reading.


Vaccines are grown in a culture of cells (for example, rabies vaccines are cultured on eggs) or serum.

When they’re injected, vaccines cause antibodies to be made to the infectious organism – but the body also makes antibodies to the proteins from the culture medium.

The manufacturers filter the vaccines to remove contamination … but the virus or bacteria that you’re giving the virus against is larger than the protein in the culture medium. So, while bigger things are filtered out,  the culture medium is still in the vaccine.

When a vaccine is injected into your dog, it bypasses the body’s normal defense system. The body not only makes antibodies to the virus or bacteria in the vaccines, but also to other cells and cell pieces that are in the vaccine – including red blood cells, DNA, connective tissue – things that are everywhere in the body.  If your dog is vaccinated every year or three years, each time you inject him, more antibodies are made.  This doesn’t improve immunity but it does cause autoimmune disease. Most vaccines given to puppies will protect them for life … so don’t give your dog unnecessary vaccinations year after year, as this will increase his risk of chronic disease, including diabetes.

The Influence Of Diet

Diet doesn’t directly cause Type 1 diabetes, but it does cause many other risk factors: obesity, inflammation, pancreatitis, metabolic syndrome and autoimmune disease.

There are six classes of nutrients:

  • Proteins
  • Fat
  • Carbohydrates
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Water (people forget this one!)

Protein, fats and carbs are all sources of energy (calories).


Carnivores like your dog need meat and can’t be really healthy without it. It’s the most expensive ingredient in pet food so they don’t put much of it in the food – in fact, most companies use the very smallest amount they can get away with, to increase profits.

You should feed your dog at least 30% protein to minimize the risk of diabetes.


Once your dog has been weaned from his mom, he has NO requirement for carbohydrates – none at all!

But, carbs are the cheapest ingredients, so pet food companies put a lot of them in dog foods. They’re also what holds the kibble together. Carbs will make your dog fat because grains and starchy vegetables break down into sugar very fast, and the excess is stored as fat.

Fiber is different. Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate, so it doesn’t contribute calories … and dogs who eat a high fiber diet tend to be leaner. It does help your dog feel full so adding fiber like non-starchy vegetables can help your dog lose weight. Dogs don’t need fiber but it can be quite helpful. You can also use a little powdered psyllium husk (available at health food stores). It will add bulk to the stool but is a good fiber addition. Start slowly and make sure your dog drinks plenty of water to avoid constipation.


Fat is necessary in the diet as it’s the basis of all the hormones. But one big problem with fat is the increased potential for pancreatitis … leading to diabetes.

Even one big dose of a really fatty food can cause a problem (like giving your dog the skin off your Thanksgiving turkey!).

Long term feeding of a high fat diet can also cause pancreatitis. A lot of home made raw diets are quite high in fat, and even some raw frozen diets contain a lot of fat. So if your dog’s overweight or is a breed susceptible to diabetes, it’s a good idea to feed him extra green leafy vegetables to keep the fat down (and increase fiber).

Fat Types

The type of fat you feed is important.

  • Omega-6: these fats promote inflammation. Dogs get plenty of omega-6 in their diets (unless you’re feeding all pastured meats, free range eggs etc) and you usually don’t need to supplement it.
  • Omega-3: these are important and usually need to be supplemented. Sources like phytoplankton or green-lipped mussels are much better than fish oils that can turn rancid very easily.
  • Omega-9: there’s no need to give omega-9 fats like olive oil.
  • Coconut oil: this is a medium chain fatty acid. It’s not an essential fatty acid in a dog’s diet. Many people like using coconut oil for its other health benefits but Dr Hofve cautions that it’s very high in calories and should be used in moderation with dogs who may be overweight and thus prone to pancreatitis and diabetes.

Helpful Additions To Your Dog’s Diet


Antioxidant foods fight free radicals that cause inflammation, aging, degenerative diseases and tissue damage. They’re the plant pigments that give fruit and vegetables their color. Feed foods rich in antioxidants like phytoplankton, berries, other colorful fruit and veggies, and even parsley is a powerful antioxidant.


Give these friendly bacteria to keep your dog’s gut and digestive tract healthy and support his immune system. A recent study found altered gut bacterial populations in diabetic dogs. Give your dog a good human grade probiotic as some products made for pets have been found to contain no live organisms!


This is an excellent antioxidant and it’s one of the very few things that may actually help beta cells regenerate.  If you have a dog with beginning diabetes you may be able to get some of those beta cells working again. Dr Hofve says nobody’s proved it but it’s definitely worth a try.


Berberin has long been used in China to treat diabetes. It’s found in Oregon grape and Goldenseal.  Goldenseal is endangered so use Oregon grape if you can. It’s important to ask your herbalist or holistic vet about the dosage that’s best for your dog, as you don’t want to overdo berberin.

Digestive Enzymes

Adding digestive enzymes can help your dog get more nutrition out of his food and may help reduce the burden on a compromised pancreas, as well as aid digestion.

So, in summary, do these things to help minimize your dog’s risk of diabetes.

(Note: Another great addition to your dog’s diet are fermented foods. Read the full article here.)

Avoid The Risk Factors

  • Eliminate processed foods (kibble, canned foods)
  • Eliminate sugar and starch (kibble, starch-containing canned foods)
  • Feed a moderate protein, moderate fat, high fiber, low carbohydrate diet
  • Reduce weight (and increase exercise)
  • Reduce stress (exercise helps, but consider flower essences and calming herbs as well)
  • Minimize vaccinations. Titer if necessary to measure antibodies – but even if the antibody count goes down, don’t worry that your dog isn’t protected.  The rest of the immune system may not be measureable – but it’s still there!

Follow these guidelines to help keep your dog diabetes-free. If your dog does develop diabetes, this advice will also help manage his condition and may help you minimize the need for insulin.

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