Diabetes is on the rise in humans, and most people know at least one person who has been affected by this disease. While the incidence in pets is significantly lower than in people, diabetes can affect up to 1% of dogs and cats. Usually striking in middle or older age, diabetes requires diligent lifelong management, but The Neighborhood Vet team is here to help. Here is an overview of diabetes in dogs and cats to help owners with newly diagnosed pets understand and better manage their furry companion’s care.

What is diabetes in pets?

Diabetes is an endocrine condition in which the pancreas no longer produces insulin, or the body becomes resistant to insulin’s effects. Insulin is required to move sugar from the bloodstream into cells. If insulin is not present or the cells cannot use the insulin, sugar builds up in the blood and cannot be used for energy. Because pets cannot use energy from food, their bodies think they are starving no matter how much they eat.

In people, diabetes is divided into two types: Type I features an insulin deficiency and usually strikes in childhood, while type II features insulin resistance and usually strikes in adulthood. In dogs and cats, these types are less well-defined, and some pets will have features of both or transition from one type to another. Species also plays a role—cat diabetes most often resembles type II, while dog diabetes most often resembles type I.

Pet diabetes signs and diagnosis

Type notwithstanding, diabetes causes similar signs across all species. The excess sugar in the blood can spill over into the urine and pull water molecules along with it, and the body will quickly begin burning stored body fat for energy. Common diabetes signs in dogs and cats include:

  • Increased urine volume and reflexively increased thirst
  • Increased or ravenous appetite
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Cataracts in dogs
  • Abnormal gait (e.g., dropped hocks or plantigrade stance), which tends to be more common in cats

Blood and urine tests can diagnose diabetes by showing excess glucose, and also may reveal  other common alterations, such as increased liver enzymes or pancreatic inflammation. A specialized blood test called fructosamine is comparable to human A1C, which provides a big-picture look at blood glucose levels over time rather than a single snapshot.  However, this test should not be a sole factor in determining changes in insulin.

Pet diabetes complications and associated diseases

Untreated diabetes can lead to a life-threatening condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). Ketones are a by-product of fat metabolism and are the basis for ketogenic diets, which are not harmful to people or pets without diabetes. In diabetics, however, these ketones build up in the blood alongside excess glucose, which acidifies the blood and makes pets extremely sick. Pets with DKA usually arrive at our clinic with vomiting, lethargy, and dehydration and require prompt hospitalization to manage their condition.

Diabetes is associated with several other diseases and conditions that can occur at the same time or develop later. These include:

  • Skin infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • High cholesterol
  • Nerve damage
  • Dry eyes
  • Cataracts

Pet diabetes treatments

Insulin injections, which are given every 12 hours and allow the body to properly absorb glucose, are the mainstay of diabetes treatment. Many pet owners are apprehensive about giving insulin injections to their pets, but the tiny needle size and small insulin volume make it easier than you’d expect. We also may recommend adjusting your pet’s meal times, eliminating treats and snacks, and altering their diet to provide higher fiber or lower carbohydrate levels. 

Your pet’s blood glucose, other blood chemistry parameters, urine, and fructosamine will be monitored closely as we adjust their insulin dose and diet. We also may use a continuous blood glucose monitor. Performing glucose curves in a hospital setting is no longer the standard of care nor recommended for pets, especially cats, as the stress of being in a hospital setting for 12 hours can falsely increase their blood sugar levels. Your pet’s insulin needs may change over time, and a few pets—usually cats—will enter remission and their diabetes can be managed with diet alone.  This remission has been observed more with some insulin types (i.e., glargine, or Lantus) than others.  

Pet diabetes risk factors and prevention

Some pets are more likely to develop diabetes than others, and this risk can be influenced by genetic factors or other health conditions. Risk factors for diabetes include:

  • Obesity
  • Breed — small terriers, miniature schnauzers, Samoyeds, toy poodles, Burmese cats
  • Long-term or high-dose steroid use
  • Female gender in dogs
  • Male gender in cats

While you can’t control your pet’s breed or age, you can keep them at a healthy weight, feed them a balanced diet, and provide them with daily exercise to minimize their diabetes risk.

Routine wellness screening of older or high-risk pets can help our team diagnose diabetes before serious complications develop. Early detection also will help us regulate and control your pet’s disease more quickly. Contact The Neighborhood Vet to schedule a house call or in-office visit if your pet shows signs of diabetes or other illnesses, or for your pet’s next routine checkup.