When we think of diabetes in humans we think of the two types of metabolic disturbances that can occur (Type I insulin dependent and Type II non-insulin dependent). We also know that diet, weight, genetics and lifestyle have been shown to be predispositions to diabetes in humans. Well, the same goes for our furry friends!
As our pets get older, we may notice them drinking water excessively or urinating in excess. We may also see weight loss and inappetence. These are not hallmark signs of diabetes since they can also be causes for other metabolic, endocrine and infectious disease processes. That is why it is ESSENTIAL to have your pets evaluated by your veterinarian at least once (I recommend twice) a year.
So Why Do These Signs in Pets Occur?
Diabetes mellitus occurs when the body cannot utilize a type of sugar known as glucose normally. Glucose is the main source of energy for the body’s cells. Our cells demand it. The levels of glucose in the blood are primarily controlled by a hormone called insulin, which is made by the pancreas.
As food passes through the intestines during digestion, sugars are one of the nutrients absorbed from the food. The sugars are carried into the cells that line the intestines and are converted into simple sugars (including) glucose. The simple sugars are then absorbed into the bloodstream for circulation and delivery to the whole body’s tissues and cells. Insulin is required for the transfer of glucose from the bloodstream to the cells. If there is not enough insulin or the body is unable utilize the insulin, glucose accumulates in high levels in the bloodstream (hyperglycemia. When the blood glucose reaches a certain level, the glucose overflows into the urine (this is called glucosuria) and draws large volumes of water with it. This is why diabetic pets often drink more water and urinate more frequently and in larger amounts. Oftentimes their urine is “sticky” because of the amount of sugar present in the urine. Since bacteria are huge fans of sugar in the urine, many diabetic pets have a concurrent urinary tract infection upon presentation.
How Does Your Veterinarian Diagnose Diabetes?
If you suspect a change in your pet’s behavior, always always bring a urine sample. Ideally a first morning urine sample. Use the back of a tupperwear lid to capture it for female dogs, a cup for male dogs, and nonabsorbable litter beads in cats. Siphon the urine in a cup and keep refrigerated until you see your veterinarian. A urinalysis (to confirm glucose in the urine) and a blood test (to confirm hyperglycemia) are the hallmark diagnostics tests to diagnose diabetes.
Once the diagnosis is confirmed, your veterinarian will prescribe an initial dose and type of insulin for your pet. No, insulin cannot be given orally – it must be given by injection under the skin. I personally recommend insulin exclusively made FOR pets (better regulation and glycemic control) such as glargine and Vetsulin® versus a human insulin (Humulin-NPH, for example). The downside is the cost. Have these conversations with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian or veterinary technician will then have a diabetic consultation with you. This is where you want to get EVERYONE that is involved in your pet’s care in the room! I cannot stress this enough! The veterinary team will teach you how to give the insulin injections, which involve a very small needle and are generally very well tolerated by the pet. It is not a one-size-fits-all treatment, your veterinarian may periodically need to adjust your pet’s treatment regimen based on the results of monitoring. Dietary recommendations are an important part of treatment.
Successful treatment of diabetes requires regular examinations, blood and urine tests, and monitoring your pet’s weight, appetite, drinking and urination.
Caring For Diabetic Pets
Dogs and cats with diabetes usually require lifelong commitment with special diets, exercise and, particularly in dogs, daily insulin injections. Some dogs may develop cataracts from diabetes, therefore becoming blind. Be mindful of this. There is treatment for it should this occur. The key to managing diabetic pets is to keep your pet’s blood sugar near normal levels and avoid too-high or too-low levels that can be life-threatening. Some pet parents prefer to log how much water, food and insulin their pets are receiving. That’s great. While others may not have the time to do so. And that’s ok too. A treatment that works for one pet might not work as well for another pet, and patience is important as you and your pet adjust to dietary changes and medications.
Here is what the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends in managing you diabetic pet::
- A high-fiber diet is often recommended. Discuss prescription foods and even home cooked diets with your veterinarian
- Daily exercise is strongly recommended. Consult your veterinarian about an appropriate exercise program for your pet, considering factors such as weight, overall health and age.
- Owners should consider spaying female dogs diagnosed with diabetes.
- A high-protein, low carbohydrate diet is often recommended.
- Daily exercise is strongly recommended, although it can be challenging to practice a daily fitness regimen with cats. Your veterinarian may be able to help you develop a plan.
Having a diabetic patient presents some challenges but is absolutely possible. As a responsible pet parent, it is our duty to be there for them through illness and wellness. They provide us with consistent unconditional love. The very least we can do for them is improve their quality of life so that the human-animal bond can be loved and cherished as long as we can!