Canine Diabetes: Three Common Complications

Updated on April 24, 2018
Darlene Norris profile image

Darlene Norris is a long-time pet lover. She has worked as a vet assistant and draws on this experience when she writes her articles.

Diabetic Complications in Dogs

Diabetes in dogs can cause life-threatening complications. Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is often caused by an insulin overdose. Ketoacidosis occurs when your dog's body breaks down fat for energy instead of glucose.

Cataracts don't threaten your dog's life, but they do cause blindness, and may sometimes arise overnight. Unfortunately, most dogs with diabetes will develop cataracts within a year of being diagnosed with diabetes.

Hypoglycemia Is Dangerous for Your Dog

A diabetic dog with hypoglycemia needs immediate veterinary care.
A diabetic dog with hypoglycemia needs immediate veterinary care. | Source

Hypoglycemia in Dogs

Most people know that high levels of glucose in the blood over a long period of time can damage every organ in the body. You may not know that low blood sugar levels or hypoglycemia are dangerous, too.

Your dog needs glucose (sugar) to fuel bodily processes. It's especially critical for his brain, which is unable to store glucose to use later. Low blood sugar levels affect the brain very quickly and can result in irreparable brain damage or death.

It's important to monitor your dog's blood sugar levels on a regular basis. A blood sugar level below 80 is too low. If it drops below 60, this is an emergency, and you need to get your dog to the vet as quickly as you can.

Low Blood Sugar in Diabetic Dogs Can Be Dangerous

Symptoms of Canine Hypoglycemia

These symptoms are signs of low blood sugar levels:

  • Trembling and shaking
  • Acting confused or disoriented
  • Becoming restless or agitated
  • Suddenly becoming uncoordinated
  • Nervousness
  • Low energy and weakness
  • Passing out
  • Heart palpitations
  • Seizures (rare, but may happen)

What Causes Blood Sugar Levels to Drop?

An insulin overdose is usually the problem. This can happen if you give your dog insulin before you feed him. If he doesn't eat his meal, then he's in trouble. It's best to wait until after he eats before giving him insulin.

Feed your dog two or three smaller meals during the day to keep blood sugar levels from going up or down too much. While exercise is good, too much exercise, or exercising him too vigorously can cause blood sugar levels to drop to dangerous levels. A ten-minute walk once a day is much better than an hour of high-impact exercise once a week.

Be Prepared

It's a good idea to keep some corn syrup in your kitchen. If your dog shows signs of hypoglycemia, you can put a little corn syrup into a syringe (without the needle) and squirt it into his mouth. If he's already unconscious, or he can't swallow, rub the syrup right onto his gums and under his tongue.

Keep him warm, as hypoglycemia will cause a drop in body temperature. Wrap your dog in a blanket before transporting him to the vet.

Diabetic Ketoacidosis in Dogs: What You Need to Know

Ketoacidosis is a life-threatening condition for a diabetic dog. Unfortunately, diabetic ketoacidosis is often the first indication a dog owner has that his pet has canine diabetes.

What is ketoacidosis? During the process of digestion, food is broken down into glucose, which is the fuel used by the body. There may be plenty of glucose in the blood, but your dog's body can't use it because no insulin is available. Either the pancreas is not producing insulin, or your pet's body can't use the insulin that is present. This causes glucose in the blood to rise to dangerously high levels.

In the meantime, your pet's body is desperate for fuel. It responds by breaking down stored fats. The problem is that your pet's body isn't meant to run on these fats. As the fats are broken down, ketones are produced which cause pH and electrolyte imbalances. This is a very dangerous situation, and can cause death very quickly if left untreated.

Dr. Ferox on Diabetic Ketoacidosis in Five Minutes

Ketoacidosis Symptoms and Treatment

Symptoms of Diabetic Ketoacidosis

Most of the symptoms of ketoacidosis are the same as those of canine diabetes:

  • Excessive thirst and drinking large amounts of water
  • Urinating very frequently
  • Sudden vision loss
  • Weakness and lethargy
  • Weight loss, even though your pet has a ravenous appetite
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • High blood sugar levels
  • Ketones in the urine
  • Breath smells like nail polish remover

It's a good idea to check your diabetic pet's urine daily for ketones. You can do this by using urine dipsticks, which you can find at nearly any drugstore. If the dipsticks show ketones three days in a row, or if your dog seems sick (not eating, throwing up, diarrhea), take him to the vet right away.

Ketoacidosis Treatment

An IV is essential to treat dehydration caused by high blood sugar. Your dog may also be dehydrated from vomiting or diarrhea as well.

Your vet will be giving your dog insulin to get the blood sugar levels down. Insulin is needed, but it makes potassium go into your dog's cells, which drops the amount of potassium available in the bloodstream. Potassium is a vital mineral needed for muscle function, including the heart. Potassium is added to the IV to keep the blood levels where they need to be.

Phosphorus levels also drop when your pet has ketoacidosis. If they get too low, red blood cells start to burst, which can be fatal. To prevent this, phosphorus will also be added.

"Ketoacidosis" refers to high levels of acid in your dog's blood. Sodium bicarbonate is used in the IV to lower acid levels.

A dog with ketoacidosis is very sick. He will need intensive veterinary care, with lab tests several times a day to monitor insulin and electrolyte levels.

Most Diabetic Dogs Develop Cataracts Quickly

Cataracts are a common complication of canine diabetes, often causing sudden blindness.
Cataracts are a common complication of canine diabetes, often causing sudden blindness. | Source

Diabetes in Dogs and Sudden Blindness

If your dog has suddenly gone blind, this is likely a result of cataracts formed from canine diabetes. This is a very common complication of diabetes in dogs. Cataracts in themselves are not life-threatening, but they are life-changing. Seeing your dog go blind without warning is a heartbreaking situation.

It's estimated that 75% of dogs with diabetes will go blind from cataracts within a year. This is something that goes with the territory, so don't feel that it's your fault if your dog develops cataracts.

What Are Cataracts? How Do They Form?

Normally, the lens of the eye is transparent. If it becomes cloudy, or opaque, this is called a cataract. Your dog won't be able to see through the lens anymore and becomes blind.

The lens of the eye is normally in a slightly dehydrated state, with a moisture level of 66 percent compared to the rest of your dog's body, which is 98 percent water. As long as nothing happens to upset the delicate balance between water and protein in the eyeball, the lens will remain clear.

If that balance is upset, more water will be absorbed into the lens which causes the characteristic cloudiness and opacity seen with cataracts. Dogs with diabetes have high blood sugar levels. These high glucose levels affect every organ in the body, including the eyeball.

The lens has no blood supply, so it gets nutrients and moisture from fluids in the eye. Excess glucose in this fluid passes into the lens, which absorbs more water in an effort to dilute it. This is what causes cataracts to form, which leads to vision loss.

Cataracts in dogs can form very quickly, sometimes in as little time as a few weeks. The dog's owners may not even be aware that there's a problem until their canine companion suddenly goes blind.

Cataracts Can Form Very Quickly in Diabetic Dogs

Your diabetic dog needs regular eye exams to check for cataract formation.
Your diabetic dog needs regular eye exams to check for cataract formation. | Source

Are There Treatments for Cataracts in Diabetic Dogs?

Kinostat® Can Prevent Cataracts in Dogs

A new product, Kinostat®, reduces the glucose levels in the lens. Lower sugar levels means that excess water is not being absorbed into the lens to cause the cloudiness characteristic of cataracts.

This product only prevents cataracts, so if your dog has already developed them, it won't make them go away.

Treatment Options for Cataracts

Cataract surgery is very successful in dogs. It can be done after your pet's blood sugar levels are stabilized, which usually takes about three months. Nearly three-quarters of all canines that have cataract surgery regain their sight.

Not everyone can afford the operation, though, as it's very expensive. Or a pet owner may opt not to do it.

Even though your pet is blind, it will be necessary for your vet to monitor his eyes, to prevent any further complications.

It's very upsetting to realize that your beloved friend is blind, but he won't realize that he's handicapped. Dogs adjust very quickly to being blind. We had a blind poodle for years when I was a kid, and she did very well and had a long and happy life.

Owners of diabetic dogs need to be aware of these complications. Hypoglycemia and ketoacidosis are dangerous conditons, so you'll need to monitor your dog's blood sugar levels carefully, and seek veterinary care immediately if your dog seems to not feel well. If your dog goes blind suddenly, have him checked for canine diabetes right away.

Dr. Karen Becker Discusses Cataracts in Pets

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