Does your dog have diabetes? Don’t panic. This common disease doesn’t have to be fatal, and in most cases can be easily and effectively treated.

Katya was devastated when her veterinarian broke the news that her seven-year-old poodle had diabetes. “Maddie had always been healthy, so this really threw me for a loop,” she says. “I assumed that though we might be able to control the disease for a while, Maddie would probably be dead within months.” Katya later found out that with the proper care, Maddie’s prognosis wasn’t so bleak. While diabetes can’t be totally cured, it can be effectively treated, especially if it’s caught early enough.

Multiple factors usually contribute to the development of diabetes. These factors include genetics, obesity, infections, insulin-antagonistic diseases such as adrenal disease, medications such as corticosteroids, pancreatitis, and immune-mediated destruction of the beta (insulin-secreting) cells of the pancreas. When diabetes occurs, blood sugar levels elevate due to the lack of insulin produced by the pancreas. Often, the exact cause is not determined and treatment begins with the goal of lowering the dog’s elevated blood sugar.

Early Diagnosis is Crucial

Diagnosing diabetes in its early stages is essential for proper treatment. I recommend all animals receive annual blood and urine testing, with those five years of age and older getting these tests twice yearly. Dogs already showing signs of diabetes should be examined and tested immediately.

Most dogs that develop diabetes are between four and 14 years of age, with many commonly affected at seven to nine years old. Certain breeds seem to have a higher incidence of diabetes, including poodles, Cairn terriers, beagles, dachshunds, and miniature schnauzers. Clinical signs include excess appetite, thirst, and urination. Keep in mind that these signs are not specific to diabetes since they also occur with other diseases, including kidney and adrenal problems. A complete examination with blood and urine testing is needed to elucidate the actual cause of these clinical signs and to allow proper therapy.

The Role of Insulin

Since most dogs are Type I diabetics and require insulin, this is the therapy most often recommended for them. Even holistic doctors find that at least initially (and often for life), their patients will need twice-daily injections of insulin.

Even though insulin is a synthetic drug, it is somewhat “natural” in the sense that it is a hormone made by the body. It is also safe when administered properly. Your veterinarian will demonstrate the proper way to prepare and give insulin injections to your dog.

Some dogs are presented as diabetic emergencies, with very high levels of blood glucose. These animals require aggressive fluid and insulin therapy for several days in the hospital, in order to stabilize their blood glucose levels. Once the dog is feeling better and his glucose levels have stabilized, he can continue therapy at home.

While most diabetic dogs can be treated easily and relatively inexpensively at home, this disease sometimes requires repeated and somewhat expensive blood glucose testing in order to determine the “right” insulin dose for the dog. Most dogs are easy to regulate with insulin, but regular checkups and blood and urine testing (usually every three months or so) will be needed for the rest of their lives.

Natural Therapies Can Help

Natural therapies are designed to strengthen the pancreas and help modulate blood glucose levels, as well as support the liver and adrenal glands. Keep in mind, however, that these therapies may not be effective by themselves, and are usually used concurrently with insulin.

  • Choline is important for proper nerve functioning and liver support. I’ve had one client who successfully used a special choline supplement to actually “cure” her dog’s diabetes, so I always include it in my therapy.
  • Cinnamon has been shown to lower blood sugar levels in humans, possibly by decreasing insulin resistance. While the exact dosage in dogs has not been determined, I encourage people to give ½ teaspoon to 1 tablespoon per feeding, depending on the size of the dog.
  • Gymnema is an herb well known in Ayurvedic medicine for its use in the treatment of diabetes. It is a “sugar-destroying” herb that appears to work through a combination of mechanisms. These include reducing intestinal absorption of glucose; stimulating insulin secretion and therefore increasing blood insulin levels; and increasing the permeability and number of pancreatic beta cells (which secrete insulin). Gymnema has also been reported to decrease blood cholesterol levels.
  • Syzygium is an herbal or homeopathic remedy that provides support to the pancreas.
  • Chromium and vanadium are both heavy metals that in low doses can help support normal blood sugar levels. Vanadium may have insulin-like effects in lowering blood sugar levels, whereas chromium may increase the number of insulin receptors as well as receptor sensitivity to insulin.
  • Milk thistle is a liver-supporting herb helpful for dogs with diabetes, thanks to its antioxidant activity and also because the liver is involved in glucose metabolism. A side effect of diabetes is fat accumulation in the liver, so adding milk thistle to the treatment can help minimize damage from this fat accumulation.
  • Pancreatic glandulars may be prescribed by holistic or integrative veterinarians to support normal pancreas function. The pancreas needs support anytime a pancreatic disease such as diabetes is present.
  • Antioxidants and fish oil are used to reduce the oxidative damage and inflammation that often occur in diabetes, as well as to increase insulin sensitivity.

Holistic or integrative veterinarians will usually use a combination of these natural therapies to help support normal blood sugar levels in diabetic dogs. While these therapies are generally safe, keep in mind that in most cases your dog will also be treated with insulin to lower his blood sugar levels. Levels that drop too low can be life-threatening. This means you should only use natural therapies under the direct supervision of your veterinarian.

In most instances, diabetes is not fatal when diagnosed early. The majority of dogs will do well and have normal lives when treated with a combination of insulin and natural therapies.