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Diabetes in Pets: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, and More

A disease of the pancreas, diabetes mellitus occurs when this small but vital organ near the stomach stops producing insulin, doesn’t produce it well, or doesn’t produce enough of it to regulate glucose (blood sugar). Diabetes can also develop when a pet can’t effectively use insulin in the first place (a condition called insulin resistance).

Glucose is the primary source of energy for the cells of the body, and insulin is the hormone that regulates the level of glucose in the bloodstream and controls the delivery of glucose to the rest of the body.

When a dog or cat has diabetes, glucose is elevated (hyperglycemia), but without insulin to tell the cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, they become starved for glucose. This causes the body to begin breaking down stores of fat and protein for energy instead.

Simply put, diabetes is caused by the failure of the pancreas to regulate blood sugar.

If diabetes isn’t treated or remains uncontrolled, the pet may become very sick, requiring hospitalization.

Pets at Risk for Diabetes

Both cats and dogs can get diabetes, and the disease can begin at any age. However, diabetes does tend to more commonly affect pets who are older, with the disease typically diagnosed in middle-aged dogs and older cats.

Certain dog breeds are at higher risk, and female dogs tend to get diabetes more often than male dogs. The opposite is true in cats, with diabetes being more common in male cats than in females.

Causes of Diabetes Mellitus

Major risk factors for diabetes are obesity and long-term use of medications that contain corticosteroids. Other conditions can also make a pet more likely to develop diabetes or can make it more difficult to effectively treat diabetes; these include heart disease, hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland), hyperadrenocorticism (an overactive adrenal gland), kidney disease, pancreatitis, skin infections, and urinary tract infections.

Health Effects of Diabetes Mellitus

Untreated or poorly managed diabetes can make pets more prone to developing other diseases or conditions, such as:

  • Bladder stones
  • Cataracts (which can lead to blindness)
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Kidney failure
  • Pancreatitis
  • Urinary tract infections

Diabetes can affect every organ system in the body if the disease isn’t treated or managed properly.

Another potential complication is diabetic ketoacidosis, a medical emergency in which the amount of insulin in the body becomes extremely low. This condition can be life-threatening and can occur before diabetes is diagnosed or even during treatment.

Diabetes is becoming more common in both dogs and cats because the number of overweight and obese pets is on the rise.

Clinical Signs of Diabetes Mellitus

The main symptoms of diabetes in pets are:

  • Increased thirst/excessive water consumption
  • Increased urination
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight loss

These symptoms can also be signs of other diseases or medical conditions, so it’s important that we examine your pet to determine what’s causing them. If your dog or cat shows any of these signs, please let us know.

If your pet with diabetes stops eating and drinking, it may be a sign of diabetic ketoacidosis, which is an emergency and requires hospitalization. Other signs of ketoacidosis include:

  • Sweet-smelling breath
  • Rapid breathing
  • Lack of energy/weakness
  • Vomiting

Diagnosing Diabetes Mellitus

Your veterinarian will diagnose diabetes based on the classic clinical signs, as well as through the results of blood and urine tests that show a persistently high glucose level in the blood and the presence of glucose in the urine (glucosuria). Pets with diabetes have excessive amounts of glucose in the blood. This excess glucose is removed by the kidneys and then flushed out of the body in the urine. Glucose in the urine is a primary indicator of diabetes.

To confirm the diagnosis of diabetes mellitus, your veterinarian may run a serum fructosamine test, which shows average blood glucose levels over a week or two.

Treating Diabetes Mellitus

Fortunately, diabetes mellitus can be managed in dogs and cats. It typically requires long-term treatment with daily insulin injections and careful monitoring of glucose levels.

Monitoring pets with diabetes is crucial to make sure they’re responding well to insulin therapy and other aspects of the diabetes management plan.

A well-balanced diet is an essential part of effective diabetes management. If your pet has diabetes mellitus, your veterinarian will likely recommend a dietary change to help manage the disease. A lot of factors go into deciding what nutrition is needed for a pet with diabetes; your veterinarian will select a diet that will work best for your individual pet’s needs.

Managing Your Pet’s Diabetes at Home

If your pet has been diagnosed with diabetes, you play an incredibly important role in helping to manage the disease. Giving insulin injections and monitoring glucose levels quickly becomes routine for most pet owners.

We will make sure you understand how to give insulin and how to monitor your pet’s blood sugar so you become comfortable with the process.

Even more important than what your pet eats is feeding your pet consistently. Along with making sure your pet gets insulin at the same time each day, feeding your cat or dog a consistent amount of the same food (and the same treats) at the same time each day is also essential to helping keep your pet’s glucose under control.

Exercising your pet consistently and minimizing stress will also be important.

In addition, you’ll want to keep an eye on any new developments, such as changes in:

  • Appetite
  • Energy level
  • Grooming habits (particularly in cats)
  • Water consumption
  • Urination (amount of urine)
  • Weight

Preventing Diabetes Mellitus

Most pets who develop diabetes are predisposed to the disease, so preventing diabetes isn’t usually possible. However, because obesity seems to play a role in the development of diabetes in some dogs and cats, keeping pets at their ideal weight may help or at least make it easier to treat the condition.

Removing potential causes may lead to resolution of diabetes in certain cases. For instance, some medications may make pets more likely to develop diabetes; your veterinarian may recommend stopping these drugs to see if that helps.

Do not stop giving your pet any previously prescribed medications without first checking with your veterinarian.

Cats with diabetes may go into diabetic remission, a condition that occurs when a cat’s blood glucose is regulated and stays at normal levels for more than a month without needing insulin injections or other glucose regulation. Some cats can stay in diabetic remission for months or even years. Cats have the best chance of going into remission when insulin therapy is started quickly and adjusted appropriately, with the chosen diet being given consistently.

Your Veterinarian’s Role in Your Pet’s Diabetes Management

If your pet has diabetes, we want to catch this disease as early as possible to help make sure it’s properly controlled and to minimize or avoid potential complications. We’ll walk you through how to give insulin injections and monitor glucose levels, as well as how to track any other changes.

In addition, your pet’s nutritional and insulin needs may change over the course of the disease. Through regular check-ins, your veterinarian will help you make sure your pet with diabetes continues to stay on track.

Give us a call today if your pet is showing any signs of diabetes or if you’re concerned about your pet’s health. As long as the disease is well managed, many dogs and cats with diabetes can enjoy a good quality of life.

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