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Diabetes in Dogs and Cats

You may have family or friends that have been affected by diabetes, but many pet owners can be confused when their beloved dog or cat is diagnosed with the disease. Although it is not curable, diabetes can be well-managed with the correct medication, diet, and healthy lifestyle. Read our guide to diabetes in pets to know what to expect in terms of symptoms, treatment, and related conditions.

What is diabetes?

As diabetes is such a common condition among humans, you will be familiar with it, but it can be helpful to know exactly how the disease works. Diabetes mellitus, which is the most common form of diabetes in dogs and cats, is a metabolic condition that affects the way the body converts food into energy.

In a healthy body, food passing through the digestive system is converted into glucose, which is the main source of energy for cells. The glucose is then transported around the body by insulin, which is created naturally in the pancreas. In a pet with diabetes, there is either not enough insulin being produced or the body does not react to it correctly. As a result, two things happen: the glucose cannot be transported and accumulates to dangerous levels in the blood, and the cells themselves do not receive the energy they need.

Risks factors for diabetes

There are a number of reasons why your dog or cat may be more at risk of developing diabetes, including age, lifestyle and genetic factors.

Diabetes can occur at any age but is more usually found in pets of middle age or older, from about 5 years of age. Obese pets are also much more at risk of the disease, as fat cells can affect the way the body responds to insulin, even if it is being properly produced. Other health conditions such as pancreatitis, Cushing’s disease or some autoimmune conditions may also trigger the onset of diabetes.

While diabetes can in fact affect any breed or mixed breed, some dogs are more at risk of diabetes than others. This includes Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Toy Poodles, Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, Beagles, Doberman Pinschers, and German Shepherds. In cats, Siamese breeds are shown to have a higher risk of the disease.

Diabetes symptoms

Frequent urination – this is one of the most noticeable signs of diabetes in both dogs and cats. As the glucose levels in the blood increases, the body attempts to flush it out by increased urination.

Excessive thirst – as the need to urinate increases, your pet will also need to drink more to combat dehydration. If they empty their water bowl you may find your pet drinking from other places such as the toilet bowl.

Excessive hunger– if the glucose is no longer reaching the cells in the body, your brain will mistake this as a lack of energy coming in, and send signals to your pet that they are hungry.

Unexplained weight loss– due to the lack of insulin in the body, your pet will fail to correctly convert the nutrients in their food and may lose weight even if eating more.

Lethargy – as energy is failing to reach the cells in the body, pets will become less active and may spend more time sleeping.

Infections– recurring or persistent infections, particularly of the skin or urinary tract.

Dull coat (cats)– lethargic cats or unwell cats are less likely to groom themselves properly, resulting in a dull or dry coat.

Cloudy eyes (dogs)– changes to the lenses of the eyes are a symptom of untreated diabetes, which can eventually lead to cataracts.

Diagnosis

Although many of the above symptoms are suggestive of diabetes, particularly if they occur in conjunction, your pet will still need to be seen by a vet to confirm the diagnosis. Fortunately, compared to some other conditions, testing for the presence of diabetes is a very straightforward process.

Your veterinarian will take into account your pet’s medical history, any recent symptoms, and their current health conditions. If they suspect diabetes has developed, the vet will run blood and urine tests to check for elevated levels of glucose. It may also be necessary to run tests to rule out other diseases or conditions that may be causing the symptoms.

If diabetes is confirmed, your vet may wish to check for any damage to the organs that may have been caused by the disease or examine your pet for signs of complications.

Treatment for diabetes

Medication – once your vet has confirmed the diagnosis of diabetes, they will prescribe insulin for your pet. This replaces the natural insulin which the body is no longer producing or responding to, and will help to keep the glucose levels in the blood at a healthy and stable level. This insulin will need to be administered daily on an ongoing basis.

Diet– managing your pet’s diet is a key part of managing their disease. A healthy diet will provide all the nutrients they need, but without causing sudden spikes or crashes in blood sugar levels. Correct feeding will also keep your pet’s weight at a healthy level.

Exercise – a moderate and consistent exercise regime can be used to control your pet’s weight, and may also reduce the amount of insulin required.

Long-term care

Although diabetes is not generally curable, it can be well managed with the right care. (Some cats may go into remission following treatment). On a day-to-day level, this means ensuring that blood sugar levels are stable and do not become too high or too low, as both of these are problematic.

Your vet will instruct you on how to correctly administer insulin, which will be given as an injection 1-2 times per day (cats and small dogs generally need 2 injections per day). Although some owners may find giving injections daunting at first, it will quickly become part of your regular care routine. Insulin will need to be timed around your pet’s meals, which should be given at the same time each day.

Initially, your pet will need frequent checkups to ensure that the insulin dosage prescribed is correct. Over time you will need to regularly have your dog or cat’s blood sugar and general health checked out, particularly if there have been any changes to their weight, diet or exercise regime.

Managing your pet’s diabetes is not just important for their general health and wellbeing, but will also help to avoid other conditions related to the disease.

Diabetes-related conditions

Low blood sugar–although high blood sugar is one of the symptoms of diabetes, low blood sugar levels can occur after treatment with insulin is started.

Ketoacidosis– when the cells are starved of glucose for an ongoing period, the body begins to break down fat and muscle to use as energy. This is a dangerous condition that will become a medical emergency if left untreated.

Cataracts (dogs) – additional glucose in the blood can cause water to enter the lens of the eye causing swelling and cloudiness, which eventually leads to blindness.

Pancreatitis (cats)– inflammation of the pancreas, known as pancreatitis, can be both a cause of and a side effect of diabetes.

Peripheral neuropathy (cats)– this a degenerative condition of the nerves that causes loss of coordination and weakness of the back legs.

Organ damage– long term elevated levels of glucose in the blood can cause damage to the heart, kidneys, eyes or nerves.


Diabetes in Dogs and Cats

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