Diabetes in Cats and Dogs

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Most of us are familiar with diabetes as a condition that affects people, but did you know that dogs and cats can develop diabetes too? It is estimated that around one in every 500 dogs and two in every 500 cats will develop diabetes over the course of their lives, and the risk factors for the condition are higher for some pedigree breeds, and for any pet that is obese or fed a poor quality diet.

Diabetes cannot be cured, but with careful veterinary treatment and day-to-day management, it can be successfully controlled, allowing your pet to live a full and happy life, and hopefully live to old age. Left untreated however, diabetes will make your pet very sick, and can even prove fatal.

In this article, we will look into diabetes in dogs and cats in detail, plus give you some tips on recognizing the condition and managing it if your own pet is diagnosed as diabetic. Read on to learn more!

What is diabetes?

In the healthy, non-diabetic pet, the food that they eat gets broken down in the body into different elements to provide fuel for life. One important element of this is the breakdown of carbohydrate to produce glucose, which gets absorbed in the pet’s intestine to provide the energy that they need throughout the day. How much carbohydrate is converted into glucose, and how much glucose is absorbed into the intestine is regulated by insulin, a naturally produced hormone that is generated by the pancreas.

If your pet’s pancreas does not generate enough insulin to convert the carbs that they eat, or if your pet’s blood cells do not respond appropriately to the insulin produced as a cue to absorb the glucose, your pet will suffer from a condition called “diabetes mellitus,” also sometimes referred to as sugar diabetes. This causes overly high levels of glucose to build up in the blood, as the blood cells are unable to adequately convert and absorb the glucose into healthy fuel.

Types 1 and 2

Diabetes is generally divided into two categories; type one and type two. Type two is sometimes referred to as adult-onset diabetes, but this is not a strictly accurate name as the differences between the two types of diabetes come from their action within the body, rather than the age at which they present themselves.

While the end result of types one and two are ultimately the same, how they act within the body and so, how they are treated, is rather different.

With type one diabetes, the body simply does not produce enough insulin to enable the uptake of glucose in the blood, and so it must be treated with supplemental insulin to make up for that which is not produced naturally.

However, type two diabetes means that the pancreas does produce sufficient insulin to fuel the body, but the problem comes with its absorption in the intestine, something that the body becomes unable to manage on its own.

What types of dogs and cats are most prone to diabetes?

Any breed of cat or dog might potentially contract diabetes, but some pedigree breeds have a higher occurrence rate of the condition than others. Some of the higher-risk dog breeds include:

  • Cairn Terrier
  • Samoyed
  • Cocker Spaniel
  • Dachshund
  • German Shepherd
  • Golden Retriever
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Pomeranian
  • Bichon Frise
  • Poodle
  • Yorkshire Terrier

Diabetes is usually diagnosed in dogs over 18 months of age, with the peak age for diabetes to first present itself coming after the age of seven. In the dog, bitches are more likely to be affected, with around 70% of all cases affecting female dogs.

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Meanwhile, the cat breeds that appear to get more than their fair share of diabetic members are:

  • Burmese
  • Siamese

While cats of any age may potentially be affected with diabetes, it is much more common in mature cats over the age of ten. It is slightly more common in male cats than in females.

While there is undoubtedly a genetic element in play when it comes to the diabetes lottery, some other conditions can also lead to the onset of diabetes in pets that would otherwise not have been prone to it. Cushing’s disease, conditions that affect the pancreas, and long-term steroid use as part of the treatment for other conditions such as asthma can all lead to elevated risk factors for diabetes in your pet.

What are the symptoms of diabetes in dogs and cats?

If your dog or cat is developing diabetes, there are several symptoms that you will begin to notice, which will worsen over time until treatment is sought. If you spot any of these symptoms in combination in your own cat or dog, you should seek veterinary diagnosis as soon as possible, to prevent the condition from worsening.

Keep a lookout for these key warning signs:

  • Excessive drinking (polydipsia) The onset of diabetes often causes pets to drink large quantities of water in an attempt to deal with the excessive levels of glucose in the bloodstream, which your pet is unable to transform into energy.
  • Excessive urination (polyurea) Alongside of excessive drinking, your cat or dog will also need to go to the toilet more frequently as a result of this, and so the two symptoms are almost universally seen in combination.
  • Overeating (polyphagia) Diabetic pets will tend to be almost constantly hungry and eat much more than healthy pets, as their bodies naturally try to make up for the missing elements that they are not getting due to their poor uptake of glucose.
  • Unexplained weight loss and loss of condition Despite your pet’s hearty appetite, diabetes also leads to a loss of condition, which usually presents as a fast and inexplicable weight loss, particularly when you take into account how much your pet is likely to be eating. As well as this, they will tend to begin to look generally unhealthy, with a dull coat and overall, unkempt appearance.

These four key elements are the main symptoms of diabetes in cats and dogs to look out for, but you might also notice some other changes in your pet as well. Lethargy, lack of attention to their personal grooming, and a generally flat, listless manner that commonly involves showing much less interest in activity and interaction with you than they usually display are all common symptoms in diabetic pets as well.

How is diabetes in cats and dogs diagnosed?

Fortunately, the diagnosis of diabetes in dogs and cats is quick and simple, and can usually be performed by your veterinarian on the spot. Your veterinarian will take a urine sample from your pet, and test it with a simple glucose dipstick to see if there is an excessive level of glucose in the urine.

Your vet will also perform a full physical examination on your cat or dog, and take blood panels to check the exact glucose levels within the body, and if there are any other conditions or complications in play.

Treating and managing diabetes

While diabetes cannot be cured, it can be managed in cats and dogs, although this does mean that your pet will need lifelong special care from you, and potentially, many trips to the clinic! Once your pet’s diabetes is under control and correctly managed, your cat or dog should be able to continue living a full, healthy life.

However, it is important to think carefully about the financial cost, stress, and emotional impact of managing the lifestyle of a pet with diabetes, too, and this is not something that you should undertake lightly.

In order to get your pet’s treatment started, your veterinarian will likely need to schedule an appointment to keep your pet in the clinic for a day or two, so that they can test their blood several times over the course of the day, and establish their glucose levels. Your veterinarian will then begin a treatment protocol that usually involves insulin injections, again, monitoring via regular blood tests how this works out in order to get the levels right.

Diabetes is a complex condition, and it is not always possible to get your pet’s insulin levels right first time; there is a reasonable amount of trial and error involved which may mean repeat trips when your pet is first diagnosed, and further appointments later on to monitor any changes.

The diabetic pet’s care at home

At home, you will need to learn to administer insulin injections to your pet yourself twice a day, unless your vet decides that the condition can be managed with a simple change of diet. Even if your pet’s condition is managed via insulin administration, your veterinarian will almost certainly recommend a special diet for your pet too, which is low in carbohydrates and designed to support healthy pancreas function.

It is vitally important to ensure that your cat or dog does not eat anything other than their specially designed, correctly measured out diet, and is not given treats or scraps, which can all interfere with their blood-glucose levels. You must also pay special attention to keeping your pet at a healthy weight, as obesity can worsen the condition, and too low a weight may indicate that your pet’s treatment protocol is not quite right.

Can you prevent diabetes in your pet?

If your pet has a genetic predisposition to diabetes, there is no way to ward off its potential onset or definitely stop your pet from developing the condition. However, there are some things that you can do to reduce the risk of borderline pets becoming diabetic, and take some steps to take to prevent environmental factors giving the condition a chance to develop.

Firstly, an overweight or obese pet runs a much higher risk of becoming diabetic than a pet that is at a healthy weight, so monitor your cat or dog’s weight carefully throughout their lives and ensure that their diet matches their activity levels. Steer clear of carb-rich or very sugary treats for your pet, and make sure that they eat an age-appropriate balanced diet, and not table scraps!

Managing and monitoring your pet’s weight for life is the best way to reduce their chances of developing diabetes.

Some care tips for diabetic pets

If your pet is diagnosed as diabetic, there are several factors to take into consideration regarding their everyday care, as well as the need to feed them a special diet and potentially administer insulin to them.

  • Firstly, make sure that all of your family understands what it means when your pet is diagnosed as diabetic, and that no one is sabotaging your endeavors to keep their blood-glucose levels stable by secretly giving them treats!
  • Keep a close eye on your pet and monitor their weight, exercise levels and food intake on an ongoing basis, and make changes as and when necessary.
  • Schedule regular check-ups with your veterinarian, so that you can be sure that your pet is thriving.
  • Take your pet along to the clinic right away if you suspect that something is not right; diabetic imbalances can soon worsen and become serious, and so the wait and see approach is not recommended for diabetic pets.
  • Ensure that you keep your pet to a regular routine in terms of their feeding times, and for dogs, exercise and walks too. A stable routine is vitally important when managing diabetes, and any changes to the routine may have a negative impact on your pet’s health.
  • Put a tag on your pet’s collar indicting that they are diabetic, as well as your contact details, so that if they should get lost anyone who finds them will know that they need to take pains to get them back to you promptly.
  • If your dog or cat is adept at scavenging for food, get them an embroidered collar that says “Diabetic: Do not feed me” so that other people know not to give treats to your pet.

While diabetes is a complex and lifelong condition, and you should not underestimate the impact it can have upon your life, it is also fully manageable, and does not mean a life sentence for the pet in question. Many diabetic cats and dogs can and do live to old age, and there is no reason why yours shouldn’t be among them.


Feature Photo Copyright: photodeti / 123RF Stock Photo

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