When it comes to diabetes, many people picture individuals sticking themselves with needles and carefully planning all of their meals. However, few people seem to realize that diabetes can affect their canine companions as well.

Diabetes mellitus, according to Veterinary Centers of America (VCA) Animal Hospitals, is a disease of the pancreas, when the pancreas fails to produce an adequate amount of the hormone, called insulin, which regulates the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Dogs with diabetes are unable to properly produce and absorb insulin and convert glucose to energy.

In dogs, as well as humans, there are three types of diabetes: Type I (a shortage of insulin) and Type II (insulin resistance) and gestational diabetes, which develops during pregnancy, according to dog magazine The Bark. Type I is listed as the most common form of diabetes among canines. However, all forms of the condition prevent the muscles from converting glucose into energy, resulting in hypoglycemia (low amounts of glucose in the blood). Hypoglycemia can lead to seizures, coma and death if left untreated, according to VCA Animal Hospitals.

While the exact cause of diabetes mellitus in dogs is unknown, contributing factors include obesity, chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), genetic predisposition, age, gender, autoimmune disorders, medications (steroid administration) and other environmental factors, according to VCA Animal Hospitals and the Whole Dog Journal.

Furthermore, female dogs that have not been spayed run a high risk of developing diabetes since the hormones they produce during their heat cycles interrupt insulin production, according to PetMD. The Whole Dog Journal also states that about 1 in 160 dogs are affected by diabetes.

There are many symptoms to consider if a pet owner suspects their dog is diabetic. Symptoms include weight loss despite normal or increased appetite, constant thirst, dehydration, increased urination, increased hunger, urinary tract infections and the onset of cataracts and blindness. Diagnosis is achieved after a series of tests are administered. A vet will draw the dog’s blood and examine a urine sample for elevated glucose levels. A vet will ask about the dog’s symptoms and about its general health in order to rule out diabetes, according to VCA Animal Hospitals.

If the dog is ill at the time of diagnosis, hospitalization may be required in order to stabilize the dog’s glucose levels and monitor their body’s response to insulin shots. For this reason, it’s important that dogs are examined yearly by a veterinarian to catch any complications before the illness progresses. However, once regulated, dogs with diabetes can live long, happy and healthy lives with minimal interruptions or complications, according to WebMD. Proper diet, exercise, the daily administration of insulin and regular checkups will support a healthy lifestyle for a  diabetic dog.

After the dog is diagnosed and stabilized, a vet will want to show the owner how to properly administer medication and monitor glucose levels at home. Because dogs respond differently to treatment, a vet will work closely with the owner to devise a treatment plan tailored specifically to the dog, including diet, exercise, insulin dosage and frequency of injection. A diabetic dog’s appetite, water intake, energy and frequency of urination should be monitored at home to determine if any further tests or adjustments to treatment should be made by a vet, according to The Bark.

Since the majority of dogs suffer from Type I diabetes, daily insulin injections are needed to maintain their sugar levels. Although some human diabetics use an oral form of insulin to administer their medication, this method has been proven ineffective for dogs, as reported by VCA Animal Hospitals. However, many pet owners will be surprised and relieved to know how easy and painless it is to administer insulin injection to their dogs, especially when medicinal administration is followed by a treat.

Insulin injections are important for diabetic dogs because, as with humans, hypoglycemia is a potentially dangerous condition that can spell tragedy for a diabetic pet. Symptoms of hypoglycemia, as listed by the Whole Dog Journal, include nervousness, hyper-excitability, anxiety, vocalization, muscle tremors, lack of coordination, wobbliness (the dog may appear drunk) and pupil dilation.

Hypoglycemia is caused by either an improper dosage or an over-dosage of insulin. Once signs of hypoglycemia are present, the dog should be fed. If it can’t or won’t eat, rub pancake syrup, Karo syrup, honey or sugar water on their gums before calling the vet. If the symptoms don’t ease up, the dog may have to be hospitalized to receive further treatment.

A veterinarian should be consulted before giving the dog more insulin, as the dosage may have to be adjusted and most likely lowered. The Whole Dog Journal suggests that dog owners keep a chart of their pet’s medications in order to avoid overdosing them on insulin. If a pet owner is unsure of whether or not their dog had an injection, it’s best to avoid it all together. However, this should not be done daily, as insulin is an important part of a diabetic dog’s treatment.

Along with insulin and frequent monitoring, a diabetic dog’s diet should be altered to accommodate their condition as well. Diets high in protein and low in fat are recommended for diabetic pets, according to WebMD. Also, dogs shouldn’t be allowed treats that are high in glucose, as this could disturb healthy blood sugar levels. Weight management is also an important part of treating diabetes, as well as regular exercise tailored to the dog’s limitations. When dealing with canine diabetes mellitus, there’s often concurrent conditions that dog owners should be aware of. Among those conditions are chronic urinary tract infections (UTIs), Cushing’s syndrome, exocrine pancreas inefficiency (EPI) and diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA).

According to the Pet Health Network, DKA is a condition that develops when diabetes goes undiagnosed and untreated. When glucose can’t get into the body’s cells, cell starvation occurs. As a result, buildup of toxins called ketones accumulates in the blood. This buildup can trigger a slew of health complications, starting with weakness and changes in appetite and leading to coma and death. DKA is also caused by hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, according to The Bark.

Cushing’s syndrome, also known as hyperadrenocorticism, is an endocrine syndrome of dogs, according Merck Animal Health. It progresses slowly and is triggered by the stress hormone cortisol. Symptoms include pot-belly and skin and coat changes. The insulin resistance perpetuated by excess cortisol in the body can worsen existing diabetes or cause the disease to develop altogether.

EPI may be seen with diabetes if there is damage to the pancreas. The disease is caused by a lack of digestion enzymes, according to PetMD. EPI affects a dog’s gastrointestinal system and causes chronic issues such as diarrhea, weight loss and malnutrition due to the body’s inability to properly absorb nutrients. Chronic pancreatitis is also a symptom of EPI.

According to the Whole Dog Journal, the excess sugar in the urine of diabetic dogs makes their bladders the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. This leaves them susceptible to chronic UTIs. The Whole Dog Journal writes that the possibility of UTIs is so great, a separate test should be done during a diabetes screening because the infection will often go undetected in a urinalysis. Even after diagnosis, diabetic dogs should be tested periodically to make sure they are free of infection.

Diabetic dogs are also susceptible to infections of the gums and mouth. Regular veterinary dental work should be undergone if deemed necessary, as dental tarter can spread infection to the rest of the body – including the heart and kidneys, according to the Whole Dog Journal.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) includes a well-balanced diet and regular exercise routine as methods to prevent canine diabetes mellitus. The ASPCA also recommends spaying female dogs, as their heat cycle’s interference with insulin production may trigger the onset of diabetes. WebMD warns that untreated diabetes can lead to blindness, urinary tract complications, coma and death.

A diabetes diagnosis can certainly be overwhelming at first, but evidence shows that the disease is highly treatable. Diabetic pets are capable of living just as long and healthily as their non-diabetic counterparts.