How to feed a Diabetic Dog
Diabetes Mellitus – Part 4 (How to Feed a Diabetic Dog)
Well, I thought I would try to wrap up diabetes, but as I started thinking about this blog, I realized nutrition plays such a big role in this disease that I need to talk about each species individually.
One of the most important aspects of feeding your diabetic dog is to feed consistent meals at fixed times each day. Ideally, each meal should be highly palatable, contain the same ingredients and calorie content, and contain half of their daily caloric requirement. If diabetics are fed at irregular intervals, they are at greater risk of developing hypoglycemia, and hypoglycemia can cause weakness, restlessness, anorexia, diarrhea, coma, seizures, and death.
Diabetic dogs that will not eat are generally sick. They can be hand-fed to ensure that they eat, or if they seem weak or hypoglycemic, they can be given Karo syrup. As soon as they improve, they can be fed a meal. You should then call your veterinarian immediately! The dose of insulin will be adjusted in the short-term, AND an appointment can be scheduled to run tests to determine if a concurrent illness, such as pancreatitis, is present.
Regarding diet selection, we will often choose a moderately carbohydrate restricted, high fiber diet. Before we talk too much about these diets, we need to spend a minute on fiber, as not all fiber is the same. Soluble fibers (pectins and gums) are really good at absorbing water, and they promote healthy tissue in the colon as well as healthy gut immunity. This type of fiber is not good for glucose control, however. Insoluble fiber (cellulose) has less water-holding capacity, but it is better for diabetics as it adds bulk to the diet and slows absorption of carbohydrates. Some ingredients like beet pulp are actually considered mixed-fiber sources, and they have benefits of both soluble and insoluble fibers. When a diet claims to be “high fiber”, it is generally referring to the insoluble fiber content, but unfortunately, it is difficult to compare the fiber contents between diets because of different moisture and calorie contents.
When making the case for fiber, there are studies in veterinary medicine that show improved glycemic control with less glucose in the urine when fed a high fiber diet versus a low fiber diet.1 Another study showed that dogs with DM (diabetes mellitus) have better glycemic control while on a diet with high levels of insoluble fiber.2
A couple of other clinical considerations about fiber – the increased fecal bulk associated with high fiber diets will result in an increased frequency of defecating. Dogs may then have accidents if they are not walked regularly or allowed outside more frequently. Secondly, commercial diets are a better source of fiber supplementation because they are formulated to provide all of the essential ingredients pets need, and fiber supplementation can unbalance the total diet if added to an existing diet. For example, canned pumpkin is a popular fiber supplement, but you would need to feed more than 10% of your pet’s daily calories to achieve the goal of adding the fiber in the first place. That totally throws of the nutrient balance of the diet!
Another important consideration about diets for our dogs with DM is calorie density. Some of our dogs are an ideal weight at the time of diagnosis. Many are overweight, and some are underweight. We need to achieve and maintain an ideal body weight with this disease, and to accomplish this, some dogs will need higher calorie foods than others. The fat content of a diet plays a role in the calorie density of the diet, and dogs with hyperlipidemia, which can be a risk factor for DM and pancreatitis, should be fed low fat diets. Dogs that are underweight at the time of their diagnosis will likely need a higher fat food so that they can eat enough food to meet their daily energy requirements.
To the nitty-gritty – veterinary diets versus over-the-counter diets. Some of the veterinary therapeutic diets that are high-fiber, low-carbohydrate have nutrient profiles that are outside of AAFCO guidelines for healthy pets. This does not mean that the diet is unhealthy; it just means that the diet is formulated for a disease condition rather than your average healthy pet. The same type of nutrient profile can be found in OTC diets as well. Consider this, though – the veterinary diets are made with strict processing protocols to ensure that the diets are consistent from batch to batch. The companies stake their reputations on this. These same strict processing guidelines are not always found in OTC diets. This variability in batch preparation may be fine for healthy pets but not pets with illnesses.
Frequently, I hear owners talk about feeding high quality foods, but they have bought into the marketing schemes of certain pet food companies. Before we start arguing about corn and by-products, I want to encourage anyone who is questioning which pet foods are better than others to look at the list of guidelines created by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association to determine which companies are producing high quality foods. The list can be found at wsava.org/nutrition-toolkit.
Just a quick note about semi-moist foods – dogs love them because they contain sugar! They are not appropriate for most diabetic dogs.
Treats – feed the same treat at the same time every day (back to that consistency thing). You can also use some of your dog’s kibble as a treat.
To wrap up feeding our diabetic dogs, the actual diet chosen will be determined by body condition and concurrent illnesses. Your veterinarian can discuss these with you and help make the most appropriate diet recommendation. Ultimately, you, as the pet owner, will need to use that diet, feeding a consistent amount in a timely fashion day after day, to make the diet work. If your dog is not maintaining their weight well, you and your veterinarian can determine if a diet change is needed.
1. Fleeman LM, Rand JS, Markwell PJ. Lack of advantage of high-fibre, moderate-carbohydrate diets in dogs with stabilised diabetes. J Small Anim Pract 2009;50(11):604-614.
2. Nelson RW, Duesberg CA, Ford SL, et al. Effect of dietary insoluble fiber on control of glycemia in dogs with naturally acquired diabetes mellitus. JAVMA 1998;212(3):380-386.