What exactly is diabetes, and do our pets get the same disease that people do? Diabetes is all about how the body controls glucose (sugar).

I asked a couple of local veterinarians about the disease. Simply put by Dr. Victoria Schad of Countryside Animal Clinic, “Diabetes mellitus (DM) occurs when either the body does not produce enough insulin or the body’s tissues cannot respond appropriately to insulin. This leads to elevated blood sugar and the signs we all know — increased thirst, increased urination, and often weight loss.”

Dr. Trish Kallenbach, of The Healing Place in Crystal River, explains it this way: “Diabetes mellitus is the same disease that we see in ourselves, where the pancreatic cells ... do not make adequate insulin for the body to move the glucose from the blood into the cells. This results in higher glucose or blood sugar than desired or needed and causes the body to flush the excess out of the body through the kidneys.”

Diabetes occurs most often in older pets, but it can happen with younger or pregnant pets, too. According to AVMA, “Diabetes in dogs and cats can occur at any age. However, diabetic dogs are usually 4-14 years of age and most are diagnosed at roughly 7-10 years of age. Most diabetic cats are older than 6 years of age. Diabetes occurs in female dogs twice as often as male dogs.”

Samoyeds, australian terriers, schnauzers, toy

poodles and burmese cats are predisposed to the disease.

The problem can be due to a reduced production of insulin (commonly known in humans as Type I diabetes), or because your pet’s body isn’t using insulin efficiently (Type II diabetes) due to insulin resistance. Dr. Trish feels that “the excess carbohydrates in their foods and poor-quality proteins and other nutritional components possibly cause the body to rely on the simple sugars too much, overburdening the pancreatic cells.”

Dogs usually get Type I diabetes, although older, overweight dogs can get Type II. Cats are just the opposite, most often being diagnosed with Type II, with obesity being a factor.

We don’t really know what triggers diabetes, but as Dr. Schad says, “Regardless of cause, once the cells that produce insulin are destroyed, they are gone forever and insulin will have to be administered by daily injection for the rest of your pet’s life.” The exception to that is in some cats diagnosed with Type II diabetes, a change in diet can reverse the disease.

Did you know that a cat overweight by just 3 pounds is considered obese? Fat cats are prone to diabetes because they develop insulin resistance leading to the ultimate destruction of insulin-producing cells. Fat dogs have an increased risk of pancreatitis which can lead to diabetes because the body doesn’t make enough insulin. Other reasons for a pet to have diabetes include problems with the adrenal gland in dogs, overactive thyroid in cats, Cushing’s disease, heart disease, kidney disease, urinary tract infections and even skin infections. Long-term steroid use can also be a factor. The most recent data shows the incidence of diabetes in dogs increased 79.7% and for cats the increase was 18.1%. One in every 500 dogs and one in 200 cats will get diabetes.

The earlier you recognize that your pet might have diabetes, the better his chances for treatment and a normal life. So how do you know if your pet could have diabetes? Watch for these symptoms:

  • Drinking water a lot
  • Urinating more often
  • Litter box has many more clumps than it used to
  • Loss of appetite, or insatiable appetite
  • Cloudy eyes
  • Chronic infections including skin infections and urinary tract infections

If you notice any of these symptoms, get your pet to the veterinarian as soon as possible. Your veterinarian will do blood and urine tests to diagnose the disease. Left untreated, the diabetes can lead to other major health issues, including life-threatening ketoacidosis, an acute condition brought on by a low insulin level. In the advanced stage of diabetes, symptoms include loss of appetite, lack of energy, depression and vomiting. In rare cases of uncontrolled diabetes, cats may experience damage to the nerves in the hind limbs, resulting in the rear legs appearing weak and carrying the back end low.

What do I do if my pet is diagnosed with diabetes? Don’t worry, it isn’t a death sentence for your pet.

Your veterinarian will prescribe an initial dose of insulin, which must be injected under the skin, and you will need to learn how to do this. Your pet will need to be monitored closely at first. It may take a month or more of very close monitoring to reach good insulin regulation. Your vet will want to check the blood glucose periodically. You can do these at home with instruction from your vet and an in-home veterinary glucometer, and the results might actually be more accurate since your pet won’t be stressed out from having to go to the vet. Once your pet is on a schedule, don’t stop monitoring. It’s important to note the time of injection, amount of insulin, and how much the pet is eating and drinking. Dietary changes help to maintain a good weight and glucose levels.

“Nutrition plays a major part, just as it does with us, in decreasing the carbohydrates (simple sugars) while maintaining quality proteins,” Dr. Trish said. “I also recommend additional support of the pancreas and digestive system as a whole by utilizing digestive enzymes and probiotics.”

The cost of diagnosing your pet is relatively inexpensive, but the cost to treat a pet for diabetes varies depending on the size of the animal and the amount of insulin prescribed. The biggest cost is the insulin. For dogs, insulins such as Vetsulin are recommended. Lantus is the best insulin for cats for both control and for possible remission. Shop around — prices vary. Other expenses are testing supplies, syringes, veterinary visits and periodic laboratory testing.

Dr. Schad happens to have a diabetic cat, and I asked her what she has to do to keep the disease in check. Consistency is key — feeding and giving insulin injections at the same time every day. Besides regular monitoring as covered earlier in this article, she stresses that owners must pay attention to their cat and notice anything that deviates from the norm. That could be a sign that the glucose levels aren’t right. Over the years she has discovered that if her cat vomits, it might be low blood sugar, and she will test him right away. She says most cats are quite tolerant when a blood sample is taken from the tip of the ear. A good quality over-the-counter food is okay as long as it’s low in carbs and high in protein. Wet food is preferred over dry because it provides additional water and is higher in protein. She adds that cats’ digestive systems aren’t geared to a lot of carbs; they need meat-based food. Really fat cats with insulin-resistant diabetes may need a prescription diet to kick-start their metabolism.

It can be overwhelming to find out that your beloved pet has diabetes, but remember that it can be controlled. As Dr. Schad says, “With attention and care a pet’s DM can be managed for life. I should know, my 17 1/2 year old cat has been living with DM for 10 years.”

Dr. Patricia G. Kallenbach owns The Healing Place in Crystal River. Dr. Victoria Schadis a small and large animal veterinarian at Countryside Animal Clinic in Beverly Hills.

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