If you know a friend or family member that has diabetes, you may have noticed that they watch what they eat, may need to take insulin or other medications, and monitor their blood sugar regularly. Dogs and cats can also get diabetes, and all the same things that are important to help human diabetics manage their condition, are important to them as well.
What is diabetes?
To understand diabetes, you first need to understand the role of the pancreas. Located around the outside of the stomach and intestines, the pancreas is a lumpy, beige-coloured organ that produces enzymes and hormones. Its main jobs are to help with digestion and to control blood sugar levels. Cells in the body need sugar as fuel to run properly and a hormone called “insulin” is responsible for moving sugar from the blood to inside the cells. Insulin is produced exclusively by the pancreas.
There are two types of diabetes. Type 1, also called "insulin dependent" diabetes means that the pancreas stops making insulin. This is the type that dogs most commonly develop.
Type 2 diabetes means that the pancreas is still making insulin, but it is not making enough of it, or the body is not able to use it effectively – a term known as “insulin resistance.” This is the type that cats most commonly develop. It is sometimes called "non-insulin dependent", but this name is misleading as it is often controlled using insulin.
The biggest risk factor for diabetes in both dogs and cats is being overweight or obese. How this happens is not yet fully understood, but increased body fat causes metabolic changes that interfere with how the body reacts to insulin. Some breeds, such as schnauzers, dachshunds, poodles, and samoyeds are more likely to become diabetic. The most common age for a pet to be diagnosed with diabetes is between 5 to 7 years of age.
What are the warning signs of diabetes?
The main signs you should be aware of are increased drinking, urination, and appetite, along with weight loss. These symptoms can also be caused by several other diseases, such as kidney, thyroid, or adrenal disease, so the first thing that a veterinarian will recommend is bloodwork and a urine test.
How is diabetes diagnosed in pets?
Blood tests are available that show both current blood sugar levels at the time the blood is taken, as well as what the levels have been for the last several months. Higher than normal blood sugar values over a period of time are sufficient for a diagnosis.
Urine tests are done to determine how far the disease has progressed and whether a pet's condition is considered an emergency. A diabetic pet will test positive for the presence of sugar in their urine and a pet in more advanced stages of the disease will test positive for ketones, which is a by-product of the body breaking down protein for energy. A diabetic pet with high levels of ketones is more sick and needs to be hospitalized for more aggressive treatment.
A pet that is newly diagnosed will require frequent hospital visits. Your vet will start with a dose of insulin and then measure your pet’s blood sugar in-hospital numerous times through the day to check how they respond. This is called a “glucose curve” because a graph of the blood results is curve-shaped. This may need to be done several times to change the dose or type of insulin. Diabetes also does not stand still and respond to the same dose of insulin forever, so regular curves will be recommended to catch early signs that medication needs to be changed.
What are the complications of diabetes?
The entire body is dependent on sugar getting in to the cells to fuel them. When this doesn’t happen, the body will go into an emergency mode and use protein to fuel the cells. Diabetes is essentially the body starving to death while all the fuel it needs circulates in the bloodstream, unable to be used. If left untreated, diabetes will lead to death.
Animals that are diabetic are also immune-suppressed. This means that they are more likely to develop other infections. The most common type of infection is repeated bladder infections because of the excess sugar in the urine. Pets with diabetes are also more likely to have aggressive dental disease because their immune systems do not respond properly to oral bacteria. Dogs with diabetes can quickly develop cataracts, but this is not seen in cats. The most frustrating part of this is that once a diabetic pet has an active infection, their diabetes becomes more difficult to regulate. This is why it is very important that you take your diabetic pet to see a veterinarian at the first sign of illness.
In dogs, the treatment goal is for them to become a well-regulated diabetic with predictable blood sugar values. They cannot be cured. Regulation is achieved with lifelong insulin therapy, typically given twice daily as injections under the skin. This is very easy to learn how to do at home and the needle is small enough that most pets barely even notice it.
In cats, the ultimate goal is to reverse diabetes altogether. If a cat is diagnosed early, treated quickly, and achieves a healthy body weight, they may become non-diabetic. The longer a cat remains diabetic, the less likely this is to occur. Up to 30 per cent of diabetic cats may be regulated by oral medications and diet, which eliminates the need for injections. Insulin is often used at the beginning of treatment to quickly control blood sugar, and then they can be transitioned to medications that either stimulate insulin production, such as glipizide, or increase the body's response to insulin, such as metformin.
How does diet affect diabetes in pets?
In addition to administering insulin or other medications, managing a pet's diet is critical in regulating their diabetes. Diabetic pets need to be fed measured amounts on a regular schedule and their treats must be very limited. Their medications must be given at the same time as their meals.
Diabetic dogs are usually managed with a higher fibre, lower-fat diet. The increased fibre is digested more slowly, which leads to slower changes in blood sugar. For comparison, the "Royal Canin Glycobalance" diabetic formula has 10 per cent fat and 14 per cent fibre, while the "Royal Canin Adult Medium Breed" formula contains 12 per cent fat and only 3 per cent fibre.
Diabetic cats respond better to high protein, low-carbohydrate diets, which prompt weight loss. A typical feline diet contains around 30 per cent protein and 40 per cent carbohydrates. For comparison common prescription diets may be 50 per cent protein and 10 to 25 per cent carbohydrates.
The best way to prevent diabetes in your pet is to effectively manage their weight and to maintain a healthy body condition. Regular exercise and low calorie treats like “Old Mother Hubbard’s 5 Calorie Dog Treats” or Purebites freeze dried liver treats, at 10 calories per serving can be helpful. For cats, timed feeders like Petsafe’s 2-meal feeder can help limit their food intake. Encouraging active play and foraging for their food using items like the Petsafe Slimcat treat dispenser can make them work for those calories!
Diabetes is a life-threatening illness if not diagnosed and treated early. The best thing that you can do for your pet at home to help reduce their risk of developing diabetes is to help them to be active and maintain a healthy weight. While diabetes is a chronic illness, there are many effective medical treatments and diets that can help regulate blood sugar and let diabetic pets live their longest, happiest life!
Bio: Jennifer Deeks is a Registered Veterinary Technician (RVT) with the Ontario Association of Veterinary Technicians. Over the years, she has worked in many areas of veterinary medicine, including general practice, emergency and critical care, avian and exotics, and specialty dentistry. Outside of veterinary medicine, Jennifer can usually be found running, mountain biking, or snuggling with her miniature schnauzer, Elsie.
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*Bernard and Kitty's Waggy Tales articles are for information purposes only and are neither intended as, nor should be substituted for professional advice, or the treatment or diagnosis of any health conditions. Information that is provided in this blog is intended for general knowledge: consult your veterinarian if you have questions about caring for your animal, or about your animal’s health or condition.
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