One of the most common questions I get is about feeding diabetic pets. Part of this is common sense, but let’s chat about the big picture. And the big picture isn’t quite the same for dogs as it is for cats.

I started thinking about this as an article idea on Sunday evening when I was chopping up the veggies that I got from the weekend farmer’s market. I do my best to avoid simple carbohydrates. I eat lots of veggies, but I have curbed my ingestion of fruit because of the carb content in fruit. I make a huge effort to eat well. I grew up in a family that didn’t eat well, and my father suffered the classic effects of ill managed diabetes as a result. I was a pudgy kid until I grew up and learned better. Now, as a middle-aged lady, I have some weird food rules. I try to eat food in its whole form, avoiding foods that come in plastic wrappers. I eat very little bread nor processed foods. I eat tons of green veggies. I strive to eat kale every day. Before I owned my own vet clinic and became a workaholic I always had a garden which is an easy task here in South Florida. I am conscious of the glycemic index of foods. I try my best to eat organic. I’m no nutritionist, but I eat healthier than most everyone I know.

We’ve all heard about glycemic index by now. Some foods cause the blood glucose to elevate quickly while others cause a slow increase. Carbohydrates are the biggest culprit for blood sugar elevations, followed by protein then fat. Obviously within each category of food, some foods cause the blood sugar to rise more quickly than others. And quantity ingested of the food affects the glucose elevation as well as the glycemic index.

Starchy vegetables such as potatoes, rice, corn and grains have a dramatic impact on blood glucose relative to non-starchy vegetable such as kale or spinach. Fruit causes a slower rise in blood glucose than fruit juice because the fiber slows down the absorption of the carbohydrate. Even so, this doesn’t give diabetics free license to eat gobs of fruit. Fiber is a good thing. Remember that when we get to diabetic dog diets.

So let’s get onto feeding diabetic pets.

I usually tell folks that it’s not just what they fed their diabetic pet but when they feed them. Timing matters! We want the majority of calories fed to coincide with the insulin injection. Mid-meal snacks can cause unwanted blood glucose spikes. Your pet might tell you otherwise, but mid meal snacks can derail diabetes management. Only if you fear your pet is hypoglycemic do I consider mid meal snacks acceptable for diabetic pets. Still, folks want to know exactly what to feed a diabetic pet.

General Diabetic Pet Feeding Guidelines:

Both diabetic dogs and diabetic cats clearly have issues with their pancreas. The pancreas has both a hormonal function (making insulin) and a digestive function (making enzymes to digest fat). Dogs and cats often end up diabetic after an episode, or repeat episodes, of pancreatitis. Fatty foods can exacerbate pancreatitis, so we need to be conscious of this. Most prescription diabetic pet foods are low in fat because we don’t wish to trigger a flare up of pancreatitis! Most diabetic pets are, well, how to say this politely… Pudgy! If a diabetic pet is lean or even skinny, then we might not opt for a low-fat diet if there isn’t concurrent pancreatitis.

Cat eating canned foodNow, what do we feed diabetic cats? Two decades ago veterinarians would feed diabetic dogs and cats similarly: high fiber, low-fat food. Then, Dr. Deborah Greco, a veterinary internist, found that diabetic cats did dramatically better on canned low-carb food compared to the traditional high fiber food most vets fed diabetic cats back then. Diabetic cats everywhere owe Dr. Greco a huge thanks. In fact, by getting newly diagnosed diabetic cats on low-carb, canned only food AND on insulin, we may get their diabetes into remission. Getting the blood glucose under control can resolve “glucose toxicity”. Glucose toxicity is the negative impact an elevated blood glucose has on the pancreatic cells that make insulin. Sometimes remission is brief, some times remission is for years. It matters that these cats continue to eat canned low-carb diets long term if we want them to stay in remission.

Commercial kibble diets are laden with carbohydrates. Canned foods are lower in carbs, but the carb content is variable between different canned diets. You can search for a cat food composition chart on the Internet and find a list that shows the protein, carb, and fat content for most of the commercial cat food diets available, both over the counter and veterinary prescription diets. Veterinary prescription feline diabetic diets include Purina DM, Royal Canin Glycobalance, and Science diet m/d. These are all great diets. And yet, there are non-prescription canned cat foods that also work well. In nature, cats are carnivores and they eat very low carbohydrates. Usually their carb ingestion is what is in the stomach of the mice or lizards that they ingest. We want the carb content of food to be 10 percent or less for diabetic cats.

Now, what about diabetic dogs? Would dogs do well on low carb diets? We don’t see diabetes remission in dogs as we often will with cats. Typically once a dog is diabetic it remains diabetic, unless it is a pregnant female experiencing gestational diabetes from progesterone causing insulin resistance. And yet, we should still be conscious about carbohydrates for diabetic dogs!

One of the great downfalls for diabetic regulation is mid meal snacks, regardless of whether it is human food or a commercial pet food treat. Don’t give your pet simple carb snacks, especially in between meals. If you wish to give your pet a special treat, give it near meal time and back off on the portion of the regular diet fed. This is especially important when we consider dog treats. Folks may do their best, following rules set forth by their vets to give insulin on time, feed a prescription diet, run curves… and then turn around and give the pet crackers or popcorn that the human is munching. Don’t do it! My favorite snack if you must give a mid-meal snack, is simply a bit of lean meat or a green bean.

There are a couple prescription veterinary diets for diabetic dogs like Royal Canin Glycobalance, and Purina OM, but weight loss diets aren’t too far off the mark as they tend to be low-fat and have complex carbohydrates. Now, what about low-carb diets for dogs? They might be a great choice, but a higher fiber diet may slow the absorption of the carbohydrates in the food and thereby slow the post-meal glucose spike. You could add fiber to a low carb diet to get this effect. There are lots of good dog food choices of diabetic dogs.

As always, chat with your veterinarian! Your vet has examined your sweetie and can guide you to a choice that takes into consideration all of your pet’s issues.

Have a question or comment? Then post below! I always enjoy hearing from my readers!

NOTE: Consult your veterinarian first to make sure my recommendations fit your pets special health needs.

Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr. Joi Sutton is a 1993 graduate from Oregon State University. She has practiced both in emergency medicine and general practice. Dr. Sutton has done extensive international volunteer work though Veterinary Ventures, a nonprofit organization that takes teams of veterinarians to undeveloped countries for humane medical care. She also runs a small animal practice in South Florida.
Dr . Joi Sutton