Diabetes—also called diabetes mellitus—is a disease that affects the body’s ability to use nutrients to make energy. When energy production occurs properly, the food eaten by your pet is broken down into basic nutrients, such as glucose, that are absorbed into the bloodstream. From the blood, glucose is transported inside cells, where it is made into energy to fuel normal metabolism. The hormone insulin, which is made by the pancreas, plays an important role in this process by helping glucose enter the body’s cells.
Types of diabetes
There are two commonly recognized forms of diabetes in pets:
- Insulin-dependent diabetes is characterized by a deficiency of insulin. Insufficient insulin production can be caused by pancreatic disease, but most often occurs without a known cause. This type of diabetes is often referred to as “Type I diabetes” or “juvenile diabetes” in people and is treated with daily administration of insulin.
- Non-insulin-dependent diabetes develops when the body produces insulin in normal amounts but does not utilize it properly. Although a similar form of diabetes is called “Type II diabetes” in people, this terminology is not used in animals. Overweight cats are prone to developing non-insulin-dependent diabetes, and treatment relies on diet and activity modifications instead of insulin supplementation.
Risk factors for diabetes
Although any animal can develop diabetes, certain conditions increase the likelihood of the disease. Most animals that are diagnosed with diabetes are older than 7 years of age. In dogs, females are twice as likely to develop diabetes, and certain breeds are known to have a higher incidence. In both dogs and cats, obesity is a well-documented risk factor, as are other health conditions, such as Cushing’s disease (overproduction of cortisol by the adrenal glands) and hyperthyroidism. Long-term administration or high doses of steroids can also lead to diabetes.
Diagnosis of diabetes
Some signs of diabetes in pets include:
- Weight loss
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Excessive drinking
- Increased urine production
- Cloudy eyes
- Weakness of the hind legs
If your pet is showing signs of diabetes, your veterinarian will test your pet’s blood glucose level to see if it is high. If diabetes is diagnosed, other tests will also be performed to check for secondary organ damage.
Effects of diabetes on your pet’s body
Diabetes has many effects on the body and normal function:
- Since glucose is unable to enter the body’s cells, it accumulates in the blood, causing high blood sugar (hyperglycemia).
- Without glucose to process into energy, the body begins to break down fat and muscle tissue, causing chronic weight loss.
- When the blood becomes saturated with glucose, it overflows into the urine, where it attracts water and increases urine production. The loss of water in the urine leads to excessive drinking, which begins a cycle of even more urine formation. The presence of glucose in the urine also predisposes animals to urinary tract infections.
Treatment of diabetes
Animals with insulin-dependent diabetes are treated with daily insulin injections. Although this sounds intimidating, owners can easily be trained to administer the insulin by injecting it under the skin using a small needle. Animals typically tolerate the injections well. The dose of insulin used will be prescribed by your veterinarian and should be followed exactly. Changing the amount given can lead to life-threatening low or high blood sugar.
Animals with non-insulin-dependent diabetes have plenty of insulin in their bodies, so giving them more will not improve their condition. Treatment for these patients usually involves modifying the diet and adding exercise. A prescription diet high in fiber and low in carbohydrates will slow down absorption of glucose throughout the day, helping to eliminate extremely high and low blood sugar levels. Your veterinarian can help you design a daily exercise plan for your pet.
Because treatment helps manage the disease but does not cure it, treatment for diabetes is lifelong.
Monitoring diabetes treatment
Diabetes is a complicated disease, and finding the right treatment regimen for an individual animal often requires some trial and error. When treatment is first started, you can expect frequent veterinary visits to recheck blood glucose levels so the correct insulin dose can be determined. Periodically, a glucose curve may be performed. This test requires hospitalization for the day while blood glucose levels are measured before feeding, after feeding, after insulin administration, and through the hours following. Once a proper dose of insulin has been determined, owners can typically monitor blood glucose levels at home by simply pricking their pet’s ear and using glucose strips and a glucometer.
A consistent feeding and insulin administration schedule is important for pets with diabetes. To keep blood glucose levels as steady as possible, it is critical to feed diabetic animals at the same time every day. Once the animal has eaten, insulin is administered. If insulin is given to an animal who skips a meal, blood sugar levels can drop to dangerously low levels.
Questions about diabetes? Is your pet showing signs of the disease? Call us at 318-797-5522.