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canine health problems
Dog getting insulin shot for low blood sugar

The essentials

  • Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, occurs when blood glucose levels are lower than normal — In dogs, this can be caused by medical conditions, genetics, and other factors.
  • Dogs with diabetes that are injected with too much insulin can experience low blood sugar — Diabetic dogs can’t produce enough insulin on their own, but too much can cause problems.
  • There are ways to keep your dog’s blood sugar at normal levels — These include proper nutrition, blood glucose monitoring kits, and regular insulin injections.

What is hypoglycemia?

Hypoglycemia is the medical term for low blood sugar. In dogs, just like in people, sugar in the form of glucose is the body’s primary source of energy. In general, blood sugar levels are controlled by the release of insulin from the pancreas. In canines, a blood glucose concentration of less than 60 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) usually indicates hypoglycemia. Without enough convertible energy, a dog’s organ and brain function can be affected. Unfortunately, the condition can become serious quickly. If left untreated, low blood sugar can be fatal.

Causes of low blood sugar in dogs

Like many canine conditions, low blood sugar can have pathological causes (i.e., an underlying disease) or be brought on by external factors, like eating a toxic substance. Other potential causes of hypoglycemia in dogs include the following:

  • Malnutrition. Proper nutrition is a key part of a healthy lifestyle for dogs. Starvation or inadequate food intake can lead to low glycogen stores, which can result in hypoglycemia.
  • Overexertion. A dog’s blood sugar levels must remain high enough to sustain their energy. Extremely active animals, like hunting or working dogs, are often at risk of overexertion. In turn, they use more glucose, which, in some cases, can lead to low blood sugar.
  • Insulin overdose. Diabetes in dogs is a difficult disease to manage, as owners often need to provide insulin injections. Too much insulin, however, can quickly lead to hypoglycemia and other serious side effects.
  • Xylitol toxicity. The artificial sweetener xylitol, found in gum, candy, and more, is extremely toxic to dogs. Xylitol ingestion in dogs causes a rapid release of insulin in the pancreas, which can dramatically lower blood sugar levels.
  • Glycogen storage disease. There are four known types of glycogen storage diseases in dogs, often characterized by excess glycogen in the liver. The body’s inability to convert this into glucose can lead to an enlarged liver, in addition to hypoglycemia.
  • Genetics. In general, toy breeds are more at risk for hypoglycemia than larger dogs. Due to their size, small breed puppies have trouble maintaining both proper nutrition and body temperature. These factors make it difficult for them to maintain adequate blood sugar levels.

Symptoms and signs of hypoglycemia

When blood sugar levels drop, the body isn’t able to convert glucose to energy. As a result, low blood sugar in dogs can ultimately affect the brain and various organ systems. As with many canine conditions, early detection is key in providing effective treatment. Some common signs and symptoms of hypoglycemia in dogs include the following:

  • Lethargy, low energy, or listlessness
  • Appetite loss
  • Loss of coordination (ataxia)
  • Weakness
  • Increased thirst (polydipsia)
  • Increased urination (polyuria)
  • Restlessness
  • Shivering
  • Seizures

What to do about low blood sugar levels

If you suspect your pet has low blood sugar, you should visit a veterinarian as soon as possible to get your pup the treatment they need. Sometimes, though, a visit to the vet isn’t immediately possible. If your dog is shivering or refusing to eat, you should act right away. In this type of emergency situation, owners can rub a small amount of corn syrup or Nutri-Cal onto a dog’s gums. A veterinarian visit is still necessary, but glucose provided by the corn syrup can help increase your dog’s blood sugar in a life-threatening situation.

Seeking treatment for low blood sugar

Since the condition can quickly lead to serious complications, dogs with suspected hypoglycemia should be taken to a vet as soon as possible. Once there, a doctor will perform a physical examination and take note of your dog’s symptoms. The next step will be to determine, and ultimately stabilize, your dog’s blood sugar levels. This testing is usually done with an instrument called a glucometer, like the FreeStyle Libre.

In some cases, your dog’s vet may give your dog glucose or corn syrup orally. For more severe symptoms, dogs may require an intravenous injection of concentrated dextrose, a simple syrup made from corn or wheat. They may also perform further diagnostic tests to monitor your pet for liver disease and check on other organs. Both the length of your dog’s stay at the vet clinic and the treatment options available to them will depend on the underlying cause of their condition.

In general, dogs respond quickly to treatment. If overexertion is the cause of their low blood sugar, they may simply need to rest. Getting your dog proper nutrition can also help turn things around. In some cases, though, like with excess insulin in diabetic dogs, an ongoing management plan must be created.

Managing your dog’s diabetes at home

Diabetes mellitus, or simply diabetes, is a common endocrine disorder that affects both humans and dogs. In dogs, the disease can come on at any age and usually requires ongoing treatment. Diabetic dogs often require insulin injections, but determining how much to give them can be a tricky task. The best way to prevent a diabetic dog from developing hypoglycemia is to properly manage their disease on a daily basis. Here are some tips that can help:

Optimize your insulin regimen — Dogs with diabetes usually require two daily insulin injections. These should be given at the same time each day, ideally 15 to 30 minutes after a meal. If your dog is refusing to eat, don’t administer their insulin, as doing so could push them into hypoglycemia.

Keep a consistent feeding schedule — Diabetic dogs do best with timed meals as opposed to free feeding. Aim to feed your dog every 10 to 12 hours or so.

Opt for a prescription diet — Prescription diets for diabetic dogs are formulated to keep their blood sugar at healthy levels. They’re also usually low in fat to prevent your dog from developing pancreatitis. Going with a prescription diet can help owners take some of the guesswork out of their pet’s nutrition.

Monitor your dog’s activity and weight — Exercise can affect the way a dog’s cells utilize insulin. Maintaining a proper exercise routine will make your dog healthier overall. It’s also important that dogs with diabetes don’t gain weight, as this can affect their ongoing insulin needs.

Learn to test blood glucose levels at home — Testing your dog’s blood glucose isn’t as intimidating as you might think. There’s a lot of trusted information available online to guide you. You can even purchase a blood glucose monitoring system with easy-to-use strips. For more information about how to do this, check out AAHA’s video on testing your dog’s blood glucose.

Frequently asked questions

What causes low blood sugar in dogs?

Hypoglycemia in dogs can be caused by overexertion, malnutrition, toxicity, excess insulin, and some other factors.

What are the signs of low blood sugar in dogs?

Dogs with low blood sugar exhibit signs like lethargy, loss of appetite, restlessness, increased thirst and urination, shivering, and seizures.

How do you treat low blood sugar in dogs?

Corn syrup or glucose given orally can help raise a dog’s blood sugar levels immediately. For more severe cases, IV injections and further tests or treatment may be needed.

How can I tell if my dog is diabetic?

Diabetes in dogs requires a professional diagnosis from a veterinarian. If your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, they will require insulin injections for the rest of their life.

Can I check my dog’s blood sugar at home?

Yes, there are simple ways to monitor your dog’s blood sugar at home using blood droplets and strips, similar to the way humans manage diabetes. There are also continuous scanners, which allows for glucose monitoring without the need for needles or drawing blood.