Diabetes Mellitus in your Pet
Diabetes mellitus is an endocrine disorder that occurs in dogs and cats. It is characterized by high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) and it is caused by an inability of the pancreas to properly secrete enough insulin into the blood. Insulin is the hormone that controls blood sugar in the body. Insulin helps to transport glucose from the blood into the cells of the body that then use the glucose for energy. When your pet eats, the sugar from the food should be absorbed into the blood and then transported into cells for use as energy. When a lack of insulin is present, the sugar (glucose) cannot move into the cells and the glucose level in the blood becomes abnormally high. In some cases, the sugar can then transform into toxic by-products that cause very serious and life-threatening disease.
Diabetes in people occurs in two forms: Type 1 diabetes (or insulin-dependent diabetes) and Type 2 diabetes (or non-insulin-dependent diabetes.)
Most diabetic dogs are similar to humans with Type 1 diabetes; their pancreas is unable to make enough insulin. In dogs, the most common causes are a dysfunctional immune system that damages the pancreas, or pancreatic injury that occurs due to an inflammatory condition called pancreatitis. It can also occur as a side effect of medication, particularly steroids, and can result from certain diseases like Cushing’s. Unfortunately, diabetes is not curable in dogs. The vast majority of diabetic dogs require insulin injections for life once diagnosed.
Diabetes in cats, on the other hand, is more similar to Type 2 diabetes in humans. The most common causes in cats: obesity and an excess of carbohydrates in the diet, which exhaust the pancreas. It can also occur in cats with pancreatitis or who are given steroids. In some cases, feline diabetes can be reversible with insulin administration, a high protein/low-carb diet and maintenance of a healthy weight. But diabetes will recur if cats go back to an inappropriate diet. In other cases, feline diabetes is irreversible and the cat requires daily insulin for life.
What does Diabetes Look Like in a Pet?
Increased water consumption and urination are the two most common signs seen in dogs and cats, regardless of the type of disease. Another common sign is increased appetite. Additional signs of illness (lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, or weight loss) may also be seen. Many dogs with diabetes will develop cataracts that will progress to blindness – this condition can develop even with appropriate treatment. Poorly regulated diabetic cats may develop a problem with their nervous system leading to weakness and an unusual gait.
How Can I Know if My Pet is Diabetic?
If your pet is experiencing any of the classic signs of diabetes, it is important to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. He or she will perform a physical examination of your pet and ask you questions about your pet’s health history. Since other diseases can cause signs similar to diabetes, blood work and urinalysis need to be done to confirm the presence of diabetes. Depending on the condition of your pet at this initial exam, hospitalization may be necessary to allow for correction of any metabolic problems and stabilization of the diabetes.
How Can I Care for My Diabetic Pet?
It is very important to work closely with us to regulate your pet's diabetes as well as possible. Treatment requires a commitment of time, money, and patience from pet owners. The cost of caring for a diabetic pet is an important consideration and will vary depending on the size of your pet and any additional health problems that may occur. The cost of insulin, syringes, and periodic blood work should be expected.
Beyond financial considerations, there is a large time commitment required of owners of diabetic pets. Diabetes regulation can be frustrating during the initial months and you may feel like you are at the veterinary hospital a lot. This is normal with all animals as the initial regulation takes many small manipulations of insulin dosing to get the desired result. Once your pet is well regulated, they may only need check-ups two or three times a year.
Such a commitment may not seem easy, but can be rewarding for both pet and owner. Your commitment adds to the quality of your pet’s life and is paid back in years of companionship.
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Sarah K. Sprayberry, DVM
November 31, 2016