Why Diabetic Pets Can Benefit From Low Carbohydrate Diets

close up of a domestic cat


For diabetic pets, proper dietary support is vital for the successful management of this disease. Veterinarians often recommend a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet to help regulate blood sugar levels. This recommendation is helpful for both dogs and cats, but for many diabetic cats, it’s essential and can sometimes eliminate the need for insulin injections (never adjust or stop giving insulin without the supervision of your veterinarian). Let’s take a look at how low-carbohydrate diets can support these pets.

Diabetes in pets, much like in humans, is a chronic metabolic disorder characterized by the inability of the body to properly regulate blood sugar levels. This condition occurs when the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin (most common in dogs) or when the body’s cells become resistant to insulin (most common in cats). Insulin is a hormone that plays a crucial role in facilitating the uptake of glucose from the bloodstream into cells, where it can be used for energy. In pets, diabetes is commonly diagnosed in dogs and cats, and its prevalence is increasing.

Low carbohydrate diets are beneficial for blood sugar control. This is because carbohydrates are easily broken down into glucose (sugar), then absorbed quickly, which can cause spikes in blood sugar levels. In fact, carbohydrates are the main dietary source of glucose in the body. Reducing consumed carbohydrates reduces the amount of glucose in the bloodstream, leading to more stable blood sugar levels and reducing the demand for insulin.

Cats can have reduced insulin sensitivity, commonly associated with obesity. A low-carb diet may improve insulin sensitivity, making it easier for cells to absorb and use glucose. With reduced carbohydrate intake, the body doesn’t need to produce as much insulin to manage blood sugar levels. This helps prevent the pancreas from overworking and can improve insulin sensitivity. This can be especially beneficial for individuals with insulin resistance, in some cases reducing or eliminating the need for insulin use.

Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial for diabetes management. Low-carb diets often lead to weight loss, which can improve overall insulin sensitivity and help control blood sugar levels. When carbohydrates are limited, the body relies more on protein and fat for energy. This can lead to better fat metabolism and reduced fat accumulation in tissues, which is linked to improved insulin sensitivity.

Unlike the rapid spikes and crashes associated with high-carb meals, low-carb diets can provide more stable energy levels throughout the day, reducing fatigue and helping pets increase their daily activities. Regular physical activity also improves insulin sensitivity.

Now that we can see the benefits of a low carbohydrate diet for diabetic dogs and cats lets take a look at some general tips for feeding a diabetic pet:

Low Carbohydrates: Minimize the carbohydrate content in a pet’s diet, excessive carbohydrates can contribute to elevated blood sugar levels. The ideal diet for many diabetic pets will be one that has less than 7% of the metabolizable energy coming from carbohydrates. Unfortunately, this can only be achieved with canned, fresh, or raw foods. Kibble has to contain more carbohydrates to make the kibble itself, so you will not find a kibble that fits this parameter. If a pet needs to be fed kibble or even just part of the diet kibble, look for the kibble with the lowest amount of metabolizable energy coming from carbohydrates and look for complex carbohydrate sources. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down and get absorbed by the body so they are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes. Some complex carbohydrate examples are brown rice, millet, sorghum, chickpeas, and lentils, just to name a few.

High-Protein Content: Choose a pet food with a higher protein content, protein can help a pet feel fuller and more satisfied. It will also help to ensure the preservation of lean body mass (muscle) during weight loss, resulting in the body favoring fat loss over muscle loss. When the carbohydrates are reduced, there must be a proportionat increase either protein or fat. Especially for the overweight pets since fat contains more calories that protein it is better to have that portion of energy come from a higher protein content.

Regular Feeding Schedule: It is vital for diabetic pets to stick to a consistent feeding schedule to help regulate their insulin levels. Ideally, the meals are equally spaced apart and at the same time each day for the best chance at blood sugar regulation. Always ensure that a pet eat before giving the insulin injection and follow your veterinarian instructions precisely.

Portion Control: Monitor and control portion sizes to avoid overfeeding, which can lead to weight gain and insulin resistance. Underfeeding is also an issue, which can cause low blood sugar levels if given too much insulin for the amount of food consumed. It’s best to be like Goldilocks and get it just right each time. If splitting canned food or feeding kibble, it can be beneficial to get a kitchen gram scale and actually weigh out each proportion to ensure they are as even as possible. Consult with a veterinarian to find out exactly how much should be feeding at each meal, as this will vary if a pet needs to lose weight, gain weight, or stay at the same weight.

Regular Veterinary Visits: Some pets are easily controlled with diet and insulin and others are not. As pet’s weights change, so do their insulin needs. Many diabetic pets also have other health issues that may need to be managed. It is vital that one stays in contact and works closely with one’s veterinarian to ensure the health of a diabetic pet.

It’s important to note that the effectiveness of a low-carbohydrate diet can vary among individuals, and it’s advisable to consult with a veterinarian to create a personalized dietary plan that suits the specific needs and medical conditions for each pet. It’s crucial to discuss dietary changes with your veterinarian first. Regular veterinary check-ups and owner diligence are key elements in successfully managing diabetes in pets.

About the Author: Dr. Katy Miller works as the Director of Veterinary Services at BSM Partners. She brings her extensive background in companion animal nutrition (12 years) and her experience as a practicing veterinarian (7 years) together to help provide useful information to pet food manufacturers and pet parents. She shares a home with 2 cats, 9 dogs, and 5 horses.