Hypoglycemia: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Having a diabetic dog made me very aware of what causes hypoglycemia and how to treat for hypoglycemic (hypo) episodes.  Before diabetes I did know that toy breeds were prone to hypoglycemia, but I never did a lot of research on the issue.  Since working with dogs and their humans I have learned that there are many more reasons dogs can become hypoglycemic.

What is hypoglycemia?

A dog’s normal blood glucose levels are 70 – 120 mg/dL (3.8 – 6.6 mmol/L). A dog is considered hypoglycemic when levels drop below 70 mg/dL (3.8 mmol/L).  Since glucose is what the body uses as a source of energy or fuel, it is very important that hypoglycemia is treated immediately.  Let’s review some causes of hypoglycemia in dogs.

Diabetes – Dogs are considered Type 1 diabetic just like humans.  Their pancreas no longer produces insulin, so twice daily insulin injections are necessary.  Hypoglycemia is a problem due to different reasons but here are a couple common issues: too high dose of insulin, dog does not eat but gets full dose of insulin, dog eats and receives full dose of insulin and then vomits, accidental double dosing insulin.

Exertional Hypoglycemia – Exertional hypoglycemia happens in dogs due to rigorous exercise for an extended period of of time (one to two hours); working dogs and high performing sporting dogs (hunting dog hypoglycemia) are susceptible to exertional hypoglycemia due to the body over using glucose.

Toy Breed Hypoglycemia – When toy breeds are under five months old, they are prone to hypoglycemia and must be monitored for hypoglycemic episodes. The brain uses a lot of glucose for energy or fuel and toy breed puppies tend to under manufacture glucose because of a couple reasons.  Toy breed puppies have a hard time regulating body temperature and do not eat as much because of cutting teeth late and are not able to chew kibble like larger breeds.  These two issues can cause hypoglycemia.

Toxicologic Hypoglycemia – Ingesting or inhaling toxic substances, whether natural or man made can cause severe hypoglycemia in dogs.  Xylitol is a man-made sweetener that is commonly used in mints, candies and dental products for humans.  Oleander, sago palm and snail bait are commonly found in yards and are toxic and cause hypoglycemia.  Theobromine a chemical found in cacao (chocolate), tea leaves and kola nuts can also cause hypoglycemia in dogs.

Addison’s Disease in Dogs – Dogs with Addison’s Disease do not produce adrenal hormones due to underactive adrenal glands.  Corticosteroid deficiency causes insulin sensitivity and can lead to hypoglycemia.

Liver Disease – Cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, liver cancer, tumors and glycogen storage diseases can cause hypoglycemia in dogs.  The liver produces glucose for the body for energy, when the liver is damaged it cannot convert glycogen into glucose.  Lack of glucose causes hypoglycemia.

Pancreatic Tumors / Cancer – Tumors and cancer of the pancreas can cause over production of insulin, causing hypoglycemia.

The list goes on, but there are some examples as to why hypoglycemia can affect our dogs.  So what are the clinical signs of hypoglycemia? Dogs do not always show clinical signs of hypoglycemia until they drop below 40 mg/dL (2.2 mmol/L), but some clinical signs are:

  • Lethargy
  • Stumbling, wobbling (drunk looking)
  • Shaking/shivering
  • Voracious drinking and/or eating
  • Barking, trying to get your attention
  • Nervous
  • Seizure
  • Unconscious

Prolonged hypoglycemia can cause permanent brain damage and even death, so it is especially important that you treat your dog for a hypoglycemic episode immediately.  There are instances where you can treat your dog for hypoglycemia at home, but you should always contact a vet or ER vet hospital.

If your dog has toxicologic hypoglycemia this is an extreme emergency and treatment at your vet or ER vet hospital is a must.

When Lucy my diabetic dog had hypoglycemic episodes I was able to treat at home because I tested her blood glucose levels regularly with BG meters and had a hypoglycemic kit on hand.

You need to give a simple carb to elevate blood glucose level quickly.  The fastest way to do this is to rub a high glucose or dextrose product on the gums, the gums and mouth absorb sugars.

Some high glucose/dextrose products are:

  • Glucose SOS for Pets
  • Honey
  • Pancake Syrup
  • Karo Syrup

You also want to follow up with a complex carbohydrate and protein to elevate blood glucose for a longer period of time.  Simple carbs work fast but also burn off quickly, we always need to follow up with a complex carb and a protein source.

Some complex carbs and proteins suggestions are:

  • Whole wheat crackers or bread
  • Fig Newton cookies (NO xylitol)
  • Peanut butter crackers (NO xylitol)
  • Meat baby food
  • Dog food (wet and or dry)
  • Canned chicken or tuna packed in water

Please contact your vet or ER vet hospital for further instruction.

If you have a diabetic dog or a dog that suffers from hypoglycemia it is a good idea to be able to test blood glucose levels.  Testing BG levels is not hard and takes a little practice, but it can be a lifesaving tool.  It is a good idea to have a hypoglycemic kit for any dog that can suffer from hypoglycemia. My kit included a blood glucose meter, test strips, lancets, Glucose SOS for Pets and either fig newton cookies or peanut butter crackers.

Hopefully you never have to deal with hypoglycemic episodes, but if you do you now have a better grasp on how to treat hypos!

If you are looking for glucose recovery products you can take on the go, I would recommend the PetTest Glucose SOS for Pets.  It is pre-measured dosing, an easy to dispense gel and dogs love the meat stew flavor.  And for those of you that test blood glucose levels, the PetTest Meter Kit is a great glucose meter that many use for their diabetic dogs!

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