What is diabetes?
Diabetes is a common condition affecting middle aged-older pets. Diabetes mellitus (aka diabetes) is a condition where the body is not able to use glucose (sugar) appropriately. Glucose is the main source of energy for all the cells of the body. Insulin is produced by the pancreas and allows the glucose in the blood to be taken up by the cells of the body. Without insulin, the cells go into a state of starvation which forces the body to break down fat and muscle which is then converted by the liver into sugar. This results in the weight loss seen in diabetic pets. The other affect low insulin has the increase in sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream. Since insulin is needed to bring glucose into the cells, without it there becomes an excess of glucose in the bloodstream (referred to as hyperglycemia). When the blood glucose gets high enough it will start to “overflow” into the urine causing glucosuria. The sugar in the urine attracts water with it, which causes the increased peeing seen with the condition.
Who is at risk?
A big risk factor in developing diabetes is obesity, which is why it’s always important to try to keep your pet at an ideal body condition. If you are unsure if your pet is at its ideal weight, don’t be afraid to ask your veterinarian, they will be happy to guide you! A variety of health conditions also make your pet more at risk of developing diabetes, including:
- Cushing’s Disease (overactive adrenal gland- dogs)
- Hyperthyroidism (Overactive thyroid gland- cats)
- Pancreatitis (Inflammation of the pancreas)
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
- Urinary tract and skin infections
What are the signs of diabetes?
Catching diabetes early is the most important step in effective treatment to allow your pet a longer and healthier life. If you notice any of the following signs in your pet, please consult your veterinarian.
- Increased water drinking and urination (amount and frequency)
- Inappropriate urination (urinating outside the litter box)
- Weight loss despite a strong appetite
- Cloudy eyes/ blindness (dogs)
- Chronic skin or urinary tract infections
How is diabetes diagnosed?
Diagnosis of diabetes is relatively straightforward. Your veterinarian will likely want to run a couple of tests to confirm diabetes and to rule out other possible conditions. A blood test to look for an increase in blood glucose is usually the first step. If hyperglycemia is present, then the next step is to look for glucose in the urine. If sugar is found in the urine in a pet that has hyperglycemia, then you have confirmed diabetes. Your veterinarian may recommend blood work to assess organ function and to look for signs of infection which can make management of diabetes more difficult. Your veterinarian may also want to culture your pet’s urine to assess for the presence of a urinary tract infection which is common in diabetic pets due to the sugar in their urine.
How is diabetes treated?
Most pets will require insulin injections just under the skin every 12 hours with meal time for the rest of their lives. These injections are often tolerated very well due to the very small needle size. It’s also important that pets that are overweight are carefully managed for weight loss with diet and exercise to reduce insulin resistance that is associated with obesity; this will allow better success in diabetic management.
Your veterinarian is likely to recommend a special diet for your diabetic pet. This is especially true with diabetic cats. Some cats are able to go into diabetic remission in which they no longer require insulin when they are put on a special diet that is high in protein and low in carbohydrates. This is also why your veterinarian will recommend either a 100% canned food diet or a mix of dry and wet food.
The first several months of treatment tend to be the most frustrating and expensive part of treatment as you and your veterinarian work together to get your pet’s diabetes under control. This involves performing “glucose curves” either at your veterinarian’s office or, more ideally, at home. It is important to be patient during this time as you, and your pet becomes accustomed to a new normal. Treating diabetes can be very successful and rewarding and can allow many more happy years with your pet.
What is hypoglycemia?
Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is the result of an insulin overdose. This can be caused by either giving too much insulin or by giving insulin when your pet has stopped eating. In pets, it is extremely important to ensure they are eating before you provide them with insulin as hypoglycemia is very concerning and is more detrimental to the body than hyperglycemia. If your diabetic pet has stopped eating it is important to get them seen by your veterinarian as soon as possible.
Signs of hypoglycemia include:
Contact your veterinarian or an emergency clinic immediately if you observe any of these signs.
Written by Dr. Jennifer Crew, DVM