the scientific study of pet nutrition by veterinary nutrition specialists and experts.
What’s the Best Diet for My Dog with Diabetes?
There is no ‘one-diet-fits-all’ approach to diabetes: body condition, pet preferences, and other diseases or medical conditions will guide the best diet for a dog with diabetes. Though there are some differing approaches for optimal nutrition in dogs with diabetes, the one strategy that is most agreed upon is to keep the diet consistent – use the same food, same treats and feed and give insulin at the same times every day!
What kind of diabetes do dogs get?
You may be familiar with ‘Type 1’ and ‘Type 2’ diabetes in humans. Type 2 is much more common in people and is associated with obesity (this is also the kind of diabetes that cats usually get) and the body becoming resistant to the effects of insulin. Dogs are more commonly diagnosed with something similar to ‘Type 1’ Diabetes, or what we might call ‘insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus’ (IDDM). Animals with Type 1 can no longer make insulin, often due to an auto-immune condition. Diet can play an important role in management of both types of diabetes, but it should be used along with medical management and diet will never replace the need for insulin or other medications in diabetes for dogs or cats.
What nutrients are important for diabetic dogs?
Before selecting a ‘diabetic diet,’ we need to consider which nutrients are most important for your specific dog and use this to guide the optimal nutrient profile. The main nutrients to consider for diabetic dogs include water, calories, carbohydrates, and fiber. Many dogs with diabetes have increased thirst and increased urination, so fresh, clean water should be available at all times. The ideal number of calories per cup or can of food will depend on your dog’s body condition and whether she needs to gain or lose weight to obtain ideal body condition. If your dog has another disease such as heart disease or pancreatitis or has high levels of fat in his or her blood, other nutrients such as sodium or fat will also be important to consider. Some studies have shown benefits of increased dietary fiber for dogs with diabetes as well.
How does fiber help?
Fiber can be useful in canine diabetes, however, there are various types of fiber which can have different properties and benefits. The different types of fiber can be defined in a few ways, though dividing fibers into soluble (able to dissolve in water) and insoluble (bulking fibers) are good ways to categorize fiber. (For more information on the details of fiber, see our previous article here). Insoluble fibers, such as cellulose, add bulk and can slow digestion and absorption of dietary carbohydrate, which can be a benefit to sugar regulation for diabetic dogs. While the term ‘high fiber diets’ can be confusing, a rough estimate to the amount of insoluble fiber in a food is the crude fiber content. Of note, percentage of fiber on pet food labels are ‘guaranteed analyses’ and thus only a maximum and cannot be compared between diets of different moisture or calorie content. In addition, the crude fiber only measures insoluble fiber so will not include any soluble fiber in the diet. For more information on comparing fiber contents of diets, see our previous article with a built in calculator.
What about carbs?
Though it would seem logical to reduce dietary carbohydrate in dogs with diabetes for better blood sugar control, clinical studies have shown carbohydrate content in diets is not as helpful as fiber content for dogs
A diet is more than just the food you’re feeding!
Not only do we need to make sure we pick a diet with the right combination of nutrients, but we need to feed it consistently! Consistency of diet is an even more important aspect of diabetes management for most dogs than individual nutrient levels. Feeding the same food at the same times each day (and picking just one or two treats and giving them consistently at the same time!) will help the dog’s body to better regulate blood sugar. Along with consistency and treats comes feeding an appropriate amount. Even the best diet, if we feed too much or too little, can make it harder to control the signs of the diabetes. Dogs with diabetes can be underweight, overweight, or even ideal weight, so focusing on achieving or maintaining ideal body weight can help you pick the right diet for your dog (along with your veterinarian’s guidance). Higher calorie diets will be best for underweight dogs while lower calorie diets important for overweight dogs. Some lower calorie diets are also higher in fiber. This is an example where there is no ‘one size fits all’ diet for diabetes in dogs: in the instance of an underweight dog, a high fiber, low calorie food would be harmful if that dog cannot eat enough of the food to meet his calorie needs to maintain an ideal weight!
Will weight loss help my overweight diabetic dog?
While being overweight isn’t a risk factor for the development of diabetes in dogs, it can contribute to difficulty controlling the diabetes once it develops. Excess body fat can cause insulin resistance, meaning that the same amount of insulin has less of an effect. All overweight diabetic pets should be encouraged to slowly lose weight once initial diabetic control is reached. It is VERY important that your veterinarian monitor your dog closely during weight loss as his diabetic control will likely change and adjustments in his insulin may be needed to avoid overdoses.
Do I need a therapeutic or ‘vet’ diet?
There are diets that you can obtain from your veterinarian or with your veterinarian’s approval that are designed specifically for the management of diabetic dogs. However, these diets are not ideal or necessary for every diabetic dog. High insoluble fiber nutrient profiles can also be found in some over-the-counter foods. One advantage of therapeutic diets is that they may have better consistency due to more strict processing protocols compared to over-the-counter diets, which may have more batch to batch variability. It is also generally easier to obtain specific nutrient information from the manufacturer. You and your veterinarian may decide to stick with your pet’s regular diet initially but switch to a therapeutic diet if you are having trouble with diabetic control after starting insulin. Regardless of the diet you pick, you should always beware of substituting flavors, textures, or even dry and canned versions of the same food. Each product may have a different effect on your dog’s diabetic control and you should talk with your vet before switching and monitor their diabetes carefully during and after a switch.
Anything I should avoid?
Because we want consistency in the diet, home-cooking is not recommended because of batch to batch variability as well as the lack of testing to determine how various nutrients interact with each other (e.g. fiber) and are absorbed and utilized by the dog. Veterinary therapeutic diets from companies with strong nutritional expertise are typically tested for digestibility. Also, semi-moist dog foods should be avoided because they contain sucrose, fructose, and other simple carbohydrates that can result in higher blood sugar levels, so watch for ingredient lists that include ‘sugar,’ ‘corn syrup,’ or ‘honey’ on the label if your dog has diabetes.
Tips for managing a diabetic dog
- Make sure you keep a diet journal and tell your vet everything your dog gets, including treats, chews, table scraps, and food used for medication administration. An example diet history of what to write down can be found online at the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Nutrition Toolkit Site: wsava.org/nutrition-toolkit.
- When considering higher insoluble fiber diets, the increased fecal bulk will result in more frequent trips to go to the bathroom. This may mean you need to schedule more walks during the day to avoid accidents.
- Dog diets specifically designed to be higher in fiber are a better source of fiber in most cases than just adding fiber to a regular diet as they can be formulated to still provide all the right nutrients to dogs (added fiber may make it harder to absorb all the nutrients from the diet). Canned pumpkin is popular with clients as a fiber supplement, but the amount needed to see an effect may unbalance the total diet (meaning the pumpkin would provide significantly more than 10% of the dog’s total calories).
- Avoid fiber supplements containing added flavors or sweeteners such as xylitol, which can be harmful to dogs.
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