It’s likely you know someone suffering from diabetes. You may also know — or have — a dog or cat with the disease. Diabetes mellitus — or sugar diabetes — in pets is almost as common as it is in humans. Early diagnosis and treatment is key to your pet’s prognosis. With good care and regular veterinary follow-ups, many diabetic pets live normal life spans.
What is diabetes?
Your pet’s pancreas produces insulin, the hormone responsible for glucose regulation. If the pancreas doesn’t produce sufficient insulin then the body can’t use glucose for energy purposes and it starts breaking down protein and fat stores as energy sources. The result is diabetes. The disease most often affects older, overweight pets.
The symptoms of diabetes are reflections of the body’s inability to regulate and use glucose, high blood glucose levels being the most dramatic. In dogs and cats, the primary symptoms of diabetes include:
- weight loss
- insatiable appetite
- increased drinking
- increased urination
These symptoms resemble those of other metabolic problems, including hyperthyroidism and kidney failure in cats. Your vet will make a definite diagnosis.
Your vet may suspect diabetes based on the pet’s age and symptoms. She will test your pet’s blood and urine and check for abnormally high glucose levels. Since these levels fluctuate during the day, your vet will take blood and repeat the tests over several hours to ascertain whether the glucose levels remain elevated.
There are two types of diabetes — insulin-dependent and non-insulin-dependent. Most diabetic pets are insulin-dependent and will require insulin injections once or twice daily for the rest of their lives. Many non-insulin-dependent cats will eventually need these injections, and even non-insulin-dependent dogs require shots due to lack of other reasonable treatments.
Your vet will show you how to give subcutaneous shots to your pet, and instruct you on the timing and the amount of insulin necessary. Even if you’re squeamish about giving shots, you can learn to do this. Since injections are usually given just prior to mealtimes, your pet sees his dinner as a “reward” and the process soon becomes routine. However, your pet needs his injections at approximately the same time daily. That means if your schedule is erratic, or if you go away, you must arrange for someone to administer the injections at the appropriate time.
Non-insulin-dependent cats may receive a daily oral dosing of glipizide, a prescription drug that reduces blood sugar levels. This medication is not effective in canines.
With the right diet, some diabetic cats achieve remission, meaning they are no longer diabetic. If your cat does achieve remission, it’s likely to occur within six months of his diagnosis, while he is still receiving insulin injections. If your cat is a dry food feline, that could be a problem, as diabetic cats do best eating canned food.
Your vet may offer a prescription wet food diet for a diabetic cat. These foods are low in carbohydrates and high in protein. Low carbohydrate intake helps with blood sugar regulation, and that allows some diabetic cats to go into remission. A cat in remission may again become diabetic in the future, so careful monitoring must continue.
You don’t have to feed your cat a prescription diet, as many high-quality feline canned foods fill the low carb/high protein bill. However, don’t feed your cat any particular food without checking it out with your vet. You must also feed the cat the same amount of food at the same times each day. Free-choice feeding is out for the diabetic pet.
High-fiber, low-fat diets are recommended for diabetic dogs. Your vet may prescribe a diet, or you can work with her to come up with appropriate homemade food for your dog. If your dog is overweight, your vet can devise an exercise plan to help your diabetic pal lose weight. As with feeding, consistency is key to a diabetic’s dog exercise regimen. It’s important to exercise the same amount of time each day, and gradually increase the exercise load.
Your diabetic pet requires regular trips to the vet to monitor his condition and have his medication amounts adjusted. In addition, you must conduct home monitoring. This involves using a glucometer, a device that monitors blood glucose levels. Your vet will ensure the glucometer is correctly calibrated. Just as human diabetics monitor blood glucose levels via finger pricks with a lancet, you’ll monitor your cat’s levels with ear pricks and your dog’s with lip pricks. Put the blood droplet on a test strip, which the meter reads to determine the glucose level.
One advantage of monitoring your pet at home is that levels aren’t elevated due to the stress of visiting the vet. Keep a daily log of your pet’s glucose levels, food consumption, any behavioral or physical changes and other pertinent information to share with your vet at appointments.
Even with proper treatment, the majority of diabetic dogs develop cataracts. Both cats and dogs are more prone to infections, especially of the gums, skin and urinary tract. Take your diabetic pet to the vet as soon as possible if you suspect he has any type of infection.
Since diabetes is quite common among older animals, the disease is reasonably well understood and there are a lot of resources available. With established patterns of care, your pet can happily engage in all their usual activities and enjoy a typical house pet life span!
Jane Meggitt graduated from New York University and worked as a staff writer for a major New Jersey newspaper chain. Her work on pets, equines and health have appeared in dozens of publications, including The Daily Puppy, The Nest Pets, Horse News, Hoof Beats and Horseback magazines.