Written by Hathaway Fiocchi, DVM, DACVIM
Since 2011, there has been over a 30% increase in canine diabetes, and over a 15% increase in feline diabetes. Understanding the symptoms and being able to identify them early is crucial because if left untreated, diabetes can be fatal in dogs and cats. Here’s what you should know:
What is Diabetes Mellitus?
Diabetes mellitus is a disease in dogs and cats in which insulin is no longer produced by the body or insulin is still produced but the body no longer responds to it. When the body doesn’t respond to insulin this is termed “insulin resistant.” Diabetes mellitus in which the animal no longer makes insulin occurs in dogs and cats and is a life-long condition. Insulin resistance is seen in cats and in cases in which insulin resistance is the only reason the cat develops feline diabetes this can be a reversible condition.
What Causes Diabetes in Pets?
Under normal conditions, insulin is the hormone made in that body that allows glucose (sugar) to enter all the cells in the body. Glucose is then used by the cells as a source of energy enabling the cells to perform normal functions.
Without insulin, or when insulin resistance is present, glucose cannot be used by the body’s cells. When this happens there are two major consequences:
- Excess glucose in the blood spills into the urine and pulls water with it causing an animal to drink and urinate much more than normal.
- The body breaks down fat and muscle stores to provide the cells with an alternative energy souce resulting in weight loss despite a normal or increased appetite.
How are Canine & Feline Diabetes Treated?
Canine and feline diabetes is treated by giving insulin to dogs and cats when they eat in order to allow them to utilize glucose normally. In most cases this means giving an injection of insulin twice a day for the remainder of the pet’s life. This requires commitment from the owner in terms of daily care as well as ensuring appropriate pet care when the owner is on vacation – even for just 1 day.
Your veterinarian will be responsible for starting your pet on insulin at the time of diagnosis. Several types of insulin are available but no single insulin is “perfect” for every cat or dog. Owners of all diabetic dogs and cats must understand that the treatment of diabetes may require close monitoring and adjustments always at the time of diagnosis and sometimes down the road if a pet’s insulin needs change.
What is the Prognosis of Diabetes?
Most diabetic dogs and cats treated with insulin lead healthy and happy lives without any signs of illness. It is important to know that in both dogs and cats with diabetes there is increased risk for developing urinary tract infections, pancreatitis, and Diabetic Keto-Acidosis (DKA), which is a life-threatening condition.
Real Case: Bubba’s fight with DKA
Bubba was diagnosed with diabetes and hospitalized for DKA (Diabetic Keto-Acidosis), a medical emergency that occurs when there is not enough insulin in the body to control blood sugar (glucose) levels. The body can’t use glucose properly without insulin, so the body creates ketone bodies as an emergency fuel source. When these are broken down, it creates byproducts that cause the body’s acid/base balance to shift, and the body becomes more acidic (acidosis), and it can’t maintain appropriate fluid balance. The electrolyte (mineral) balance becomes disrupted which can lead to abnormal heart rhythms and abnormal muscle function. If left untreated, diabetic ketoacidosis is fatal.
Bubba was hospitalized with our Internal Medicine team at Boston West for a week. A central line was placed to get frequent blood samples to monitor his blood sugar and also to administer IV fluids that may not be compatible when mixed together. He slowly improved and became more and more energetic. He was taken off an insulin CRI (continuous rate infusion of insulin) to a long-acting insulin treatment plan.
There are a few other consequences of diabetes that are species-specific. Virtually all dogs with diabetes will develop diabetic cataracts, eventually causing blindness. A corrective surgery does exist in which the cataracts are removed and, in most cases, vision is restored. In cats with long-standing diabetes, hind end weakness often develops due to diabetic neuropathy.
Is Diabetes the Same in Pets as in Humans?
If you know a person with diabetes or have diabetes yourself, it is important to recognize that while the principle in how diabetes is treated is the same, there are many differences between how people are treated and how dogs and cats are treated. Always follow the guidance of your veterinarian for instructions on how best to manage your pet’s diabetes.
If you think your pet may have diabetes or you are unsure, consult with your veterinarian. Early detection can help your pet live longer and happier, and you know your pet better than anyone else.