Low-glycemic dog food labels may mislead consumers

Unlike cats and humans who develop Type 2 diabetes as a result of insulin resistance and hyperglycemia, there is no published evidence of this in dogs.

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photo by Andrea Gantz
photo by Andrea Gantz

While dogs can get diabetes similarly to humans, dietary influences on canine diabetes have not been fully researched. Because of this, dog food brands should avoid terms like “low glycemic” on their packaging, since it may mislead consumers, said Alexandra Rankovic, graduate student in the University of Guleph’s Ontario Veterinary College.

Rankovic shared some of her knowledge of dog diabetes as a prelude to her presentation at Petfood Forum 2018, “Effect of carbohydrates on health and glycemic index in dogs.”

Question and answer about dog diabetes

Petfood Industry: How do human food trends influence carbohydrate claims on pet food?

Rankovic: A large majority of pet owners view their pets as members of their families, and care deeply for their pets’ quality of life. With this in mind, health is becoming one of the biggest factors for pet owners when choosing diets for their pets. Often times pet owners will perceive trends in human health and nutrition as being good for their dogs as well. Trends such as gluten-free, paleo, low glycemic index and ancient grains such as quinoa, have made their way from human foods into pet foods. However, just because we treat pets as members of our families, doesn’t mean that their nutrient requirements and metabolism are the same as our own. 

“Often times pet owners will perceive trends in human health and nutrition as being good for their dogs as well.”

Petfood Industry: How does a dog’s diet influence its diabetes risk?

Rankovic: Diabetes is a common multifactorial endocrine disorder, and can be influenced by a variety of environmental and genetic factors, such as breed and sex. The autoimmune destruction of pancreatic beta cells, as seen in Type 1 diabetes in humans, is a common feature of almost all cases of diabetes in dogs. Unlike cats and humans, who are known to develop Type 2 diabetes as a result of insulin resistance and hyperglycemia, there is no published evidence of this occurring in dogs. As a result, there have been no studies observing the relationship of carbohydrate intake to the development of canine diabetes.

“At this point the best advice we can give concerning diet is that owners stick to feeding a well-balanced dog food, and stick to the feeding recommendations provided by either the food company or their veterinarian."

Several studies have suggested an association between obesity and the development of diabetes in dogs. Therefore it is possible that obesity and/or overfeeding, especially of a high-fat diet or high-fat human food as treats, may predispose dogs to diabetes, or initiate beta cell destruction. At this point the best advice we can give concerning diet is that owners stick to feeding a well-balanced dog food, and stick to the feeding recommendations provided by either the food company or their veterinarian. In addition, the quantity of treats provided to dogs, especially high-fat treats such as cheese and peanut butter, should be limited. In terms of preventing diabetes in dogs, the maintenance of good body condition score, and the prevention of obesity and weight gain are of the utmost importance.

Petfood Industry: What can pet food formulators do to address dog diabetes?

Rankovic: In terms of formulating foods in order to decrease the prevalence of diabetes in dogs, there is not a lot we can do, as more research is still needed. However, it is important that pet food companies do not put forward claims such as “low glycemic” that may encourage pet owners of diabetic dogs to purchase these foods. Often pet foods containing these claims simply have ingredients considered to be “low glycemic index” to humans in them.

“It is important that pet food companies do not put forward claims such as ‘low glycemic’ that may encourage pet owners of diabetic dogs to purchase these foods.”

However, once we take into account the other ingredients in this diet, the process of extrusion, and the metabolism of the dog, these claims may no longer hold true. A food should not be considered “low glycemic” until a food trial has been done in dogs that proves this to be true. Moreover, it is recommended that dogs diagnosed with diabetes be fed a veterinary therapeutic diet. These diets undergo feeding trials in diabetic dogs in order to ensure scientifically proven clinical effects.

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