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What’s the best prescription diet dog food for diabetes?

Diabetes is quite the prevalent disease in the canine community. With the rising rate of obesity in pets, your vet may have warned you about diabetes and its connection to weight gain and a sedentary lifestyle. However, some dogs are also just genetically predisposed to developing canine diabetes. Diabetes is not a disease that can be cured but fortunately, it is very treatable in dogs and can be easily managed with nutrition and the right diet.

Bull terrier with insulin kit

How food and nutrition can help with diabetes

Food is an investment in your dog’s future. The right diet can go a long way in keeping your pup healthy and help prevent diseases like diabetes. Preventing diabetes with food is very similar to treating it. Pet parents should consider feeding their dogs diets that are low in sugary carbohydrates and keep the high calorie treats to a minimum. If your dog has already been diagnosed with diabetes, keep reading to find out how their food may be key in managing their blood sugar, health status and quality of life.

What is diabetes and what causes it?

Does your dog suffer from diabetes? If so, they are not alone as canine diabetes mellitus has a rate of 0.4–1.2% among dogs. There is more than one type of diabetes but the most common in dogs is diabetes mellitus. It is a metabolic disease, where dogs cannot efficiently convert food into energy.

Diabetes mellitus is a disease of the pancreas, where the body can no longer regulate blood sugar. This is the result of the pancreas’ inability to produce enough of the hormone insulin. Without sufficient insulin production, high blood glucose can have a negative overall effect on the body, including damage to body tissues. If left untreated, diabetes can have detrimental health effects, including:

  • Cataracts or blindness
  • Enlarged liver
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Seizures
  • Kidney failure
  • Ketoacidosis

Diabetes is not curable in dogs and typically requires veterinary assistance to manage. ​​Insulin injections are the primary solution for diabetes. It can either be given as an oral medication or by injection, depending on the type of diabetes your dog has. 

Injections are the most common type of insulin treatment and are usually required twice per day. Fear not though! These injections are relatively easy to administer and are pain free for your pup.

Owner checking blood sugar of her cavalier spaniel

Best food to feed dogs with diabetes

What your dog eats greatly affects the level of glucose in their body. For dogs with diabetes, consistency is key. Feed them the same amount at the same times every day. This will help to promote consistency and balance within the body. 

In terms of diet, feed your dog low fat, low sugar food. This will decrease the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. Available carbohydrates (or carbohydrates that have a high starch content) are the main culprit for raising blood sugar in dogs. When dogs consume food that is high in available starches, it is broken down into glucose sugar and stored or transported by insulin. If a dog is in a state of insufficient insulin production, such as diabetes, this glucose remains free in the bloodstream which can make your dog very sick. The more sugary foods that dogs eat, the more likely they are to develop diabetes. This is because the insulin receptors on cells degrade overtime and less insulin is produced to lower the free glucose in the blood.

There are a number of high starch ingredients to look out for in your dog’s food, namely grains with a low insoluble fibre or resistant starch content. Glycemic index refers to the ranking  of carbohydrates according to how likely they are to raise blood sugar after they’re eaten. Grains like corn, wheat and barely should be avoided as they have a high glycemic index. 

Processing can also raise the glycemic index and availability of simple carbohydrates in dog food ingredients. Milling grains into flour or meals makes sugary starches more available to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Whole grains are always better to feed dogs than ingredients that have been milled into a flour such as corn starch, wheat flour or cornmeal. These ingredients are much more likely to be found in the contents of dry foods or kibble.

Grain free diets are a better alternative for dogs with diabetes. The carbohydrates in grain free foods like peas, lentils, chickpeas, beans and other legumes have a lower glycemic index and higher complex carbohydrate content. As a result, pulse and legume based diets will help keep blood sugar low for diabetic dogs.

Keeping a diabetic pup at a healthy weight goes a long way for managing their health. Physical activity in combination with a low calorie diet helps the body to use extra blood glucose for energy rather than storing it as fat. As a result, weight loss can help keep diabetic conditions at bay. Look for lean proteins like chicken and turkey instead of pork or beef to keep fat and calories low for your pup. Avoid diets that have added fats like chicken fat or tallow as these increase the fat content of the overall diet and are only used to increase palatability.

There is also evidence showing that a riboflavin supplement, niacin supplement or other vitamin B supplement may be helpful for dogs showing signs of diabetes. This is because B vitamins are involved in energy regulation within the body. One study actually found that supplementing individuals with a riboflavin supplement or foods containing riboflavin decreased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 10%! If you’re looking for riboflavin rich ingredients, consider supplementing your dog with yogurt, chicken breast, salmon, and organ meats like beef liver.

The difference between a prescription diet for diabetes and regular dog food

When dogs are diagnosed with diabetes, their vets will often recommend a change in diet. This change in diet could include a prescription diet. However, what many pet owners do not realize is that prescription diets are not all that different from regular food, except in price and availability. 

Prescription pet food sold in vet clinics is monopolized by the largest multinational companies in the pet food space. Royal Canin, a subsidiary of Mars INC (the same company that makes Iams and Pedigree dog food), is the dominant brand in the prescription diet market. Other top competitors include Nestle Purina’s Pro Plan Veterinary Diets and Hill’s Prescription Diets. In the past, these companies have been criticized for their multiple product recalls and questioned for their lack of quality in certain recipes. So why are companies like this making food for sick pets? It’s quite simple, they have the capital and resources to distribute and market their products wherever they want.

Unlike medications, you do not need an actual veterinary prescription to purchase a prescription diet. There are no AAFCO or FDA regulations surrounding the production or nutritional requirements of prescription pet food for specific diseases, only general veterinary suggestions around target nutrients. Therefore, some prescription diets may not actually differ all that much from regular dog food.

If your vet has suggested a prescription diet, there is a good chance it is because it is the food that they regularly sell in their clinic and has been marketed to them by the sales department of a large company. Question your vet about why they suggested the specific food and ask if there are any other commercially available foods that would be suitable for your dog’s health condition. It may end up saving you money and your dog may also get a better quality meal as well as improving their health status. In reference to diabetes, this is definitely the case.

Prescription diets for dogs with diabetes

Canine Diabetic Dry Dog Food by Royal Canin

Royal Canin Diabetes brand dog food bag

Ingredients: Chicken by-product meal, barley, corn gluten meal, powdered cellulose, wheat gluten, dried plain beet pulp, tapioca, chicken fat, natural flavors, fish oil, psyllium seed husk, potassium chloride, fructooligosaccharides, salt, choline chloride, vitamins [DL-alpha tocopherol acetate (source of vitamin E), L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate (source of vitamin C), biotin, D-calcium pantothenate, vitamin A acetate, niacin supplement, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1), vitamin B12 supplement, riboflavin supplement, vitamin D3 supplement, folic acid], calcium carbonate, taurine, trace minerals [zinc proteinate, zinc oxide, manganese proteinate, ferrous sulfate, manganous oxide, copper sulfate, calcium iodate, sodium selenite, copper proteinate], marigold extract (Tagetes erecta L.), L-carnitine, rosemary extract, preserved with mixed tocopherols and citric acid.

Guaranteed analysis: 

Crude protein 35%

Crude fat 10%

Crude fibre 14%

Moisture 10%

Calories 3334 kcal/kg

Marketing points:

  • Formulated to help in the management of post-prandial blood glucose levels
  • A high protein content helps to maintain muscle mass
  • Formulated with a reduced level of starch, 49% less than Size Health Nutrition Medium Adult

A nutritionist’s review:

  • The diet is marketed as ”high protein” and is reflected in the guaranteed analysis. However, the protein sources used in the diet are poor quality and harder for dogs to digest. Chicken by product meal, corn gluten meal, and wheat gluten are cheap, poor quality proteins that have low nutritional value for healthy dogs, much less dogs with a metabolic disease.
  • The diet is formulated with “a reduced level of starch”, yet they do not tell the consumer how much starch or carbohydrate is in the diet. If we take a look at the ingredients, Royal Canin uses tapioca and barley as their primary carbohydrate sources. Both of these ingredients are grains with a high available carbohydrate content, which is counterintuitive when you are trying to treat diabetes.
  • While it is important to feed a dog with diabetes a diet that has high fibre, it should contain sources of complex carbohydrates and not simply resistant starch that dogs cannot digest or absorb. Ingredients like beet pulp, powdered cellulose and psyllium seed husk are almost all filler fibre and will just end up being pooped out by your dog.

DM Diabetes Management by Purina Pro Plan

Purina Pro Plan Diabetes brand dog food bag

Ingredients: Dehydrated poultry protein, Barley, Maize, Soya meal, Pea fibre, Maize gluten meal, Pea protein concentrate, Animal fat, Digest, Dried beet pulp, Cellulose, Fish oil, Minerals, White bean extract

Guaranteed analysis: 

Crude protein 37%

Crude fat 12%

Crude fibre 7%

Moisture 10%

Calories 3348 kcal/kg

Marketing points:

  • Low carbohydrate to help limit postprandial hyperglycaemia.
  • Amylase inhibitor. Phaseolamin from white bean extract to help reduce carbohydrate digestion.
  • Helps reduce post-prandial blood glucose fluctuations.
  • Helps reduce oxidative stress commonly found in diabetic patients.
  • Contains selected sources of dietary fibre and low glycaemic index carbohydrates sources.
  • Contains antioxidants including vitamin E and C.

A nutritionist’s review:

  • The Purina Pro Plan diet certainly looks much better for diabetic dogs than the previous prescription diet. Purina actually lists the sugar and carbohydrate content of the diet on their website and it is actually quite low.They also do not use by-product meal as their primary protein source, which is great. 
  • Like the Royal Canin diets however, Purina does include simple carbohydrate grains like barley and corn, which contrary to their statement of reducing blood glucose fluctuations, actually does the opposite. They also use sources of insoluble fibre like cellulose and beet pulp which dogs cannot readily digest.
  • It is stated in the marketing points that this diet “contains vitamin E and C” but they are not listed as supplements on the ingredient list. It is likely that these nutrients are just naturally occurring in some of the ingredients, which is no different than what you would find in any other regular food.
  • White bean is added to this diet as a source of phaseolamin, which is an amylase inhibitor. Amylase is the enzyme that breaks starch down into glucose. This is beneficial for diabetic animals as amylase inhibition means that they will have lower blood sugar levels. While white bean is a good source of phaseolamin, it is the last ingredient listed on the ingredients. This means that it is used in the lowest amount out of any other ingredients in the diet. At this low level, the phaseolamin would likely not be at a high enough concentration to cause an effect.

Digestive / Weight / Glucose Management Prescription Diet by Hill’s

Bag image for Hill's prescription dry food for dogs – w/d diabetes care formula, with chicken

Ingredients: Whole Grain Wheat, Whole Grain Corn, Powdered Cellulose, Chicken Meal, Corn Gluten Meal, Whole Grain Sorghum, Soybean Mill Run, Chicken Liver Flavor, Pork Fat, Soybean Oil, Pork Liver Flavor, Lactic Acid, Caramel color, Potassium Chloride, Choline Chloride, L-Lysine, vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, L-Ascorbyl-2-Polyphosphate (source of Vitamin C), Niacin Supplement, Thiamine Mononitrate, Calcium Pantothenate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement, Biotin, Folic Acid, Vitamin D3 Supplement), Iodized Salt, minerals (Ferrous Sulfate, Zinc Oxide, Copper Sulfate, Manganous Oxide, Calcium Iodate, Sodium Selenite), Taurine, L-Carnitine, Calcium Sulfate, DL-Methionine, L-Threonine, L-Tryptophan, Mixed Tocopherols for freshness, Natural Flavors, Beta-Carotene

Guaranteed analysis: 

Crude protein 18.9%

Crude fat 9.1%

Crude fibre 16.8%

Calories 2921 kcal/kg

Marketing points:

  • Therapeutic L-carnitine levels
  • Optimal blend of soluble & insoluble fiber
  • Low fat and calories
  • Reduced magnesium and sodium
  • Clinically proven antioxidants

A nutritionist’s review:

  • Similar to Purina, Hill’s lists the sugar and carbohydrate content of the diet on their website and it is quite low., which is optimal for a diabetic diet. They also use chicken meal as opposed to by-product meal as their primary animal protein source. It is also low in fat and calories, which is good for supporting weight loss. Sadly, that is where the good stuff ends.
  • The first 2 ingredients listed are high starch grains, which means that simple carbohydrates are the primary ingredients in this diet. Why is a lean protein like chicken breast not prioritized? This would boost the protein content and digestibility of the diet while still keeping the fat and calories low. It’s because grain products are much cheaper than using real animal meat when you’re manufacturing pet food. It is a way for large companies to cut costs while marketing a premium food.
  • This recipe also uses added colors and flavors listed as caramel color, pork liver flavor and natural flavors. These ingredients serve no nutritional or health benefits to dogs and can actually have a negative impact on their health status.
  • Like the previous diets, Hill’s has included insoluble fibre filler in the form of cellulose. There are better alternatives for adding fibre to dog food than just simply including filler ingredients that dogs cannot digest. Ingredients like flaxseed, chia seeds, ground peas and other pules, fruits and veggies all provide a source of fiber while also providing a source of vitamins, minerals, protein and antioxidants

Best non-prescription diets for dogs with diabetes

Kabo Hypoallergenic Salmon Recipe

Kabo brand bowl of food for fresh cooked salmon recipe

Ingredients: Salmon, Potatoes, Sweet potato, Butternut squash, Green beans, Blueberries, Spinach, Kabo vitamin and mineral mix, Rosemary, Dicalcium phosphate, Flaxseed, Sunflower oil, Sea salt

Guaranteed analysis:

Crude protein 9%

Crude fat 5%

Crude fibre 2%

Moisture 74%

Calories 1038 kcal/kg

Why this recipe is great for dogs with diabetes:

  • High moisture and water content to promote hydration and healthy weight.
  • Grain free diet that contains only complex carbohydrates and no simple starches or sugars.
  • Supplemented with natural sources of antioxidants such as rosemary, blueberries, flaxseed and spinach to reduce inflammation caused by diabetes.
  • Salmon is the first ingredient (no by-products here) and is a natural source of supplementary riboflavin.
  • Low fat and low calorie diet.
  • Total dietary sugar is only 1.7%!

Merrick Grain Free Real Chicken + Sweet Potato Recipe

Merrick brand dog food bag

Ingredients: Deboned Chicken, Chicken Meal, Turkey Meal, Sweet Potatoes, Potatoes, Peas, Chicken Fat, Natural Flavor, Whitefish Meal, Flaxseed, Sunflower Oil, Potassium Chloride, Salt, Apples, Blueberries, Organic Dehydrated Alfalfa Meal, Choline Chloride, Salmon Oil, Minerals (Iron Amino Acid Complex, Zinc Amino Acid Complex, Zinc Sulfate, Sodium Selenite, Manganese Amino Acid Complex, Copper Amino Acid Complex, Potassium Iodide, Cobalt Proteinate, Cobalt Carbonate), Taurine, Yucca Schidigera Extract, Vitamins (Vitamin E Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement, Vitamin A Acetate, d-Calcium Pantothenate, Thiamine Mononitrate, Folic Acid, Niacin, Biotin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Vitamin D3 Supplement), Mixed Tocopherols for Freshness, Citric Acid for Freshness, Dried Lactobacillus plantarum Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus casei Fermentation Product, Dried Enterococcus faecium Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus acidophilus Fermentation Product.

Guaranteed analysis:

Crude protein 34%

Crude fat 17%

Crude fibre 3.5%

Moisture 11%

Calories 3668 kcal/kg

Why this recipe is great for dogs with diabetes:

  • Grain free diet that contains only complex carbohydrates and no simple starches or sugars.
  • Contains lean sources of whole meat like chicken, turkey and whitefish.
  • Supplemented with natural sources of antioxidants such as salmon oil, blueberries, and flaxseed to reduce inflammation caused by diabetes.

Now Adult Recipe Turkey, Salmon and Duck

Now brand dog food bad

Ingredients: De-boned turkey, potatoes, peas, whole dried chicken egg, potato flour, pea fiber, flaxseed, apples, natural flavor, canola oil (preserved with mixed tocopherols), de-boned salmon, de-boned duck, calcium carbonate, monocalcium phosphate, coconut oil (preserved with mixed tocopherols), suncured alfalfa, tomato, carrots, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, squash, bananas, blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, pomegranate, papayas, lentils, broccoli, cottage cheese, salt, dried chicory root, choline chloride, vitamins (vitamin E supplement, L-ascorbyl-2-polyphosphate (a source of vitamin C), niacin, d-calcium pantothenate, vitamin A supplement, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, beta-carotene, vitamin B12 supplement, biotin, pyridoxine hydrochloride, vitamin D3 supplement, folic acid.), minerals (ferrous sulfate, zinc proteinate, iron proteinate, selenium yeast, zinc oxide, copper sulfate, manganese proteinate, copper proteinate, manganous oxide, calcium iodate.), taurine, dried Lactobacillus acidophilus fermentation product, dried Enterococcus faecium fermentation product, DL-methionine, L-lysine, potassium chloride, yucca schidigera extract, L-carnitine, dried rosemary.

Guaranteed analysis:

Crude protein 26%

Crude fat 16%

Crude fibre 4%

Moisture 10%

Calories 3670 kcal/kg

Why this recipe is great for dogs with diabetes:

  • Grain free diet that contains only complex carbohydrates and no simple starches or sugars.
  • Contains lean sources of whole meat like turkey.
  • Contains salmon meat as a natural source of supplementary riboflavin.
  • Supplemented with natural sources of antioxidants such as cranberries, blueberries, and flaxseed to reduce inflammation caused by diabetes

Are prescription diets for dogs with diabetes worth it?

As a nutritionist, I do not believe a prescription diet for diabetic dogs is worth the extra money. After a closer look at the ingredients, the most popular prescription diets for diabetes are poor quality and may actually do more harm than good. There are other commercially available diets out there that are better quality and may actually benefit your dog more than a prescription diet. Ask your veterinarian about a brand you trust as it may be a healthier and more affordable choice for your diabetic pup.

Veterinarian showing a sheltie prescription food
Veterinarian showing a sheltie prescription food

View Sources

AKC “Diabetes in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatment” 2016. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/diabetes-in-dogs/

Rucinsky, Renee, Audrey Cook, Steve Haley, Richard Nelson, Debra L. Zoran, and Melanie Poundstone. "AAHA diabetes management guidelines for dogs and cats." Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association 46, no. 3 (2010): 215-224.

Hess, Rebecka S., and Cynthia R. Ward. "Effect of insulin dosage on glycemic response in dogs with diabetes mellitus: 221 cases (1993–1998)." Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 216, no. 2 (2000): 217-211.

Rand, Jacquie S. "Diabetes Mellitus in Dogs and Cats." Clinical Small Animal Internal Medicine (2020): 93-102.

Fleeman, L. M., and J. S. Rand. "Diabetes mellitus: Nutritional strategies." Encyclopedia of Canine Clinical Nutrition. International Veterinary Information Service, Ithaca, NY. A 4206 (2008).

Braun VE, et al. Methyl donor nutrient intake and risk of type 2 diabetes: Results from 3 large US cohorts.

Henry C, et al. Can the sequence of food presentation influence postprandial glycaemia?

Healio. “B vitamins may lower type 2 diabetes risk, intake order may impact onset” (2019). https://www.healio.com/news/primary-care/20190610/b-vitamins-may-lower-type-2-diabetes-risk-intake-order-may-impact-onset#:~:text=They%20found%20that%20those%20who,risk%20for%20type%202%20diabetes

Breeding Business. “Prescription Dog Foods – Reviews, Cost, Brands, Benefits & FAQ” (2019). https://breedingbusiness.com/prescription-dog-foods/

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