Does Your Dog Have Diabetes? You Could Be Next

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog diabetes risk

Story at-a-glance

  • Owning a dog with diabetes was linked to a 38% increased risk of diabetes in the owner
  • Many of the risk factors for human Type 2 diabetes — including diet, obesity and level of physical activity — are the same as those that influence risk in dogs and cats
  • Exposure to environmental risk factors, like pollutants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, are also likely to be shared among both humans and their pets
  • Shared microbial communities among dogs and their owners could also be involved in diabetes risk
  • If your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, it’s not a guarantee that you’re next, but it may serve as motivation to make healthier changes in the household — for the sake of the animals and the humans therein

Pets and their owners often have similar health problems, and this shared risk extends even to Type 2 diabetes. While this condition is already known to be prevalent and increasing in humans, it’s believed that diabetes in dogs and cats may also be on the rise.1

Many of the risk factors for human Type 2 diabetes — including diet, obesity and level of physical activity — are the same as those that influence risk in dogs and cats, while exposure to environmental risk factors, like pollutants and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, are also likely to be shared among both humans and their pets.

This led researchers to investigate whether pets and their owners share a risk of developing diabetes, with the results showing a significant association does exist — but only for dogs, not cats.2

If Your Dog Has Diabetes, Your Risk Increases by 38%

The study evaluated data from 208,980 owner-dog pairs and 123.566 owner-cat pairs. While there was no association between incidence of diabetes in cats and development of diabetes in their owners, owning a dog with diabetes was linked to a 38% increased risk of diabetes in the owner.3 The question then becomes, why?

“It is possible that dogs with diabetes could serve as a sentinel for shared diabetogenic health behaviours and environmental exposures,” the researchers suggested.4 It’s already known, for instance, that dogs and their owners often share certain behavioral, health and other lifestyle factors, like physical activity levels. Obesity is a risk factor for diabetes in both dogs and people, and past studies have also linked obesity in pets with obesity in their owners.

In one 2017 study, 78% of overweight/obese owners had overweight/obese dogs, including all dogs in the study diagnosed with obesity-related metabolic dysfunction.5 Another study also found a link, with the degree to which dogs were overweight being related to the body mass index (BMI) of their owners.6

In a 2010 study that also found owners of obese dogs were often obese themselves, the researchers noted that such owners also talked to their dogs about a greater variety of subjects and were less concerned with contracting diseases from their dogs, which they interpreted as “overhumanizing” their dogs.7

Further, overweight or obese dogs are twice as likely to have an owner who’s overweight or obese as well, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen.8

“Given the previous research on the shared risk of [being overweight] between dog owners and their animals, we believe that shared dietary habits and also physical activity levels might be involved,” Beatrice Kennedy, of Uppsala University in Sweden, a researcher on the diabetes study, told The Guardian.9 However, it’s likely that other factors are also contributing.

Is Shared Gut Health to Blame?

Owning a pet leads to changes in humans’ microbiota, and such changes could also be involved in disease risk.10 Dogs have even been called “the new probiotic”11 because they give us exposure to a diverse array of dog-borne microbes. In fact, one study found having a dog significantly elevated 56 classes of bacterial species while having a cat increased 24.12

It’s also known that infants exposed to cats and dogs in early life have greater diversity in their gut microbiome, including increased abundance of Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, which are linked to a reduced risk of childhood atopy and obesity.13

The gut-diabetes link is certainly plausible, especially considering a study confirmed that like humans with Type 2 diabetes, cats with diabetes also have decreased gut microbial diversity.14 The researchers involved in the featured study explained:15

“It is thus possible that shared microbial communities could influence both owner and dog health, and also that shared dietary and physical activity patterns could affect gut microbiota in dog owners and their pets in a similar fashion.”

Improving Pets’ Health Is a Strong Motivator

If your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, it’s not a guarantee that you’re next, but it may serve as motivation to make healthier changes in the household — for the sake of the animals and the humans therein. Often, pet parents are willing to make changes for their pet’s health that they might not even make for themselves, so this can serve as a motivating factor to improve health and wellness all around.

One of the best ways to avoid Type 2 diabetes in pets is by feeding a portion-controlled, low glycemic, species-specific diet consisting of a variety of unadulterated protein sources, healthy fats, low starch veggies and fruit in moderation. The most important thing you can do is keep your dog’s carb intake less than 20% of his diet. In addition, an absolute minimum of 20 minutes of daily aerobic exercise is required for dogs and cats.

These three steps, in addition to avoiding over-vaccination, can help keep your four-legged family member in great overall health. If you’d like to keep closer tabs on your pet’s metabolic health in particular, ask your veterinarian for a test called A1CARE,16 which can detect not only clinical but also subclinical/transitional diabetes.