Dog walking in water during a sun set

The Formula for a Happy and Healthy Life

We know that good health comes from good food, good sleep, good exercise and not too much stress in our lives! The same is true for our beloved pets. But how does it all fit together? It is all about a little hormone called insulin! Let us dig in.

What is Insulin?

Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas. Its job is to move carbohydrates (sugars) from the blood stream into the tissues of the body where these sugars are used for energy. So far so good!
Dog and cats are designed to make sugars from fats and proteins - a process called gluconeogenesis. They have a limited ability to digest sugars directly from their diet.


When we consistently feed our carnivorous pets high carbohydrate (sugar and starch) diets we force their pancreases to:
  • Keep producing more and more insulin until the pancreas runs out of insulin (Type 1 diabetes)
  • Or keep producing insulin until the tissues of the body become resistant to the persistently high levels of insulin required to shunt the sugars into the tissues of the body (Type 2 diabetes).
This sets off a cascade of very unhealthy consequences – obesity, fatty liver disease, excessive drinking, constant hunger, reduced motility and all the consequences of this. In human medicine, this syndrome (Metabolic Syndrome) is well recognised and associated with high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes.     
Two other important things happen when we feed our pets high carb diets:
  1. We cause inflammation in their bodies because carbohydrates are pro-inflammatory (they tip the delicate balance between factors that cause inflammation and factors that suppress inflammation in the body)
  2. We alter the make-up of the trillions of bacteria that live in their bowels in favour of those that trigger inflammation in the bowel and the body as a whole
This inflammation usually manifests itself as chronic low-grade diseases such as inflammatory joint, bowel and skin disease, immune-mediated diseases, kidney failure, uveitis, depression, and cancer. That is why we tend to see these sorts of problems in middle-aged and older pets because younger individuals tend to have less inflammation in their bodies.     


Sleep helps our pets’ bodies recover from the physical rough and tumble of everyday life. But it also rejuvenates their minds helping them to organise their experiences of the day, learn from the day’s activities and work through the things that may have caused stress.
Stress stimulates stress hormones (adrenalin and cortisone) which trigger a surge in blood sugar which in turn triggers a surge in insulin. Yes, here it is again – insulin! So, a lack of consistent good sleep can also lead to the pet version of Metabolic Syndrome.   
Dogs should get between 12-14 hours of sleep per night in an ambient temperature of about 18oC. They should be comfortable, not in a draft or noisy part of the house (grandfather clock, boiler or crying toddlers). Chronic pain will also affect their ability to get a good night’s sleep.    


We all know how a good old sweat can clear the head and reduce stress levels. Training helps our pets to push the envelope enabling them to cope with more and more physical and mental work. During exercise we stress our pets’ bodies but then allow them to recover and grow stronger. If we do not allow our pets to get the exercise they need, or recover adequately afterwards, the stress builds up, and yes, so does the insulin!   


Coping with stress is an important part of living our best lives! Stress hormones help our pets get over the immediate threat, engineer new coping strategies, become more resilient and appreciate the good times more. Too much stress breaks them down, literally. In biology this is called catabolism (breaking down). The catabolic process eventually leads to high insulin levels. If these remain high for long periods, the dog version of metabolic syndrome ensues.
Good health is a complex interplay between many different factors including food, exercise, rest, and stress management. Behind the scenes there are a myriad of hormones, including insulin, responding to these factors facilitating health or ill-health. It is our job as pet owners to make sure that we get the balance right.
By Richard Doyle