Canine & Feline Diabetes: Clinical Signs, Treatment, and Prevention

Do you know that pets can get diabetes? It’s one of the more common endocrine (glandular) diseases affecting pets and it’s actually mostly preventable.

Your pet’s diagnosis of diabetes is a life-changing one, so I suggest always doing your utmost to prevent it from occurring.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a metabolic (glandular) disease involving hormones that regulate water balance and blood glucose (sugar) levels.
There are two primary types of diabetes: insipidus and mellitus.

  1. Diabetes insipidus less commonly affects pets and mainly involves hormones that help to regulate water retention and excretion.
  2. Diabetes mellitus (Type I or II) is more common and results from the lack of or insufficient production of insulin from the pancreas.

As diabetes mellitus is the most common of the two types of diabetes affecting pets, let’s focus on diabetes mellitus for this segment.

How bad is this problem in canines & felines?

The problem is so bad that diabetes has its own commemorative month. November is National Pet Diabetes Month, which raises awareness of the disease and strives to help owners with both preventive and treatment measures.

Diabetes severely compromises a dog’s or cat’s quality of life and alters the care provider’s schedule, budget, and emotional state. According to VPI Pet Insurance claims data, diabetes related veterinary expenses totaled more than $1.5 million in 2007, with an average invoice of $200 per visit.

When it comes down to it, can pet owners afford the expenses associated with the ongoing management of a diabetic pet? If no, then owners should be extra vigilant in taking measures to prevent the potential for their pet to become diabetic.

How does a cat or dog develop diabetes and is it a different process for cats and dogs?

Type I diabetes mellitus is the primary type affecting dogs, which results from damage to the pancreas. When enough insulin-producing pancreatic islet cells are damaged, insulin output decreases and hyperglycemia occurs. Infections with bacteria, parasites, and viruses and consumption of toxins or inappropriate environmental materials can cause inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) and digestive tract (Inflammatory Bowel Disease or IBD).

Type II diabetes is more commonly seen in cats and results from the pancreas’ inability to manufacture sufficient insulin to support a body burdened by excess weight. As Type II diabetes is very preventable, owners who permit their cats to overfeed and become obese are the primary parties at fault for causing this life threatening disease in their feline companions.

What are the clinical signs of diabetes in dogs and cats?

Insulin regulates movement of glucose from the blood into body tissues. If the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin, then hyperglycemia (high blood glucose) occurs.

The kidneys, liver, and other organs are negatively affected by hyperglycemia. The kidneys try to lower blood glucose levels by excreting glucose into the urine when hyperglycemia crosses an upper threshold.

Hyperglycemia and glucosuria (glucose in the urine) are detectible via blood and urine tests (respectively) and cause the following clinical signs:
Excessive thirst

  • Increased urinary output and frequency
  • Ravenous appetite
  • Weight loss

Should you see the above clinical signs in your pets, please immediately get your pet to the veterinarian for an examination and recommended diagnostic testing.

How dangerous is it for dogs and cats to have diabetes that is undiagnosed or untreated?

Living in a state of prolonged hyperglycemia as occurs in diabetic pets causes the body to metabolize stored energy, including carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Protein and carbohydrate breakdown produces glucose. Fat metabolism yields toxic ketones which create a variety of concerning signs of illness (diabetic ketoacidosis), including:

  • anorexia (decreased appetite)
  • diarrhea
  • electrolyte imbalance
  • emesis (vomit)
  • lethargy
  • seizures

All such signs merit an urgent trip to your veterinarian or local emergency veterinary practice.

How is diabetes managed in dogs and cats?

Our diabetic canine and feline companions require insulin injections to reduce blood glucose levels by transferring glucose into body tissues. Insulin injections may be given once, twice, or even more times per day depending on how the pet’s blood glucose levels and clinical signs respond.

Veterinarians teach owners how to administer insulin injections, which are given in very small volumes through thin and short needles into the subcutaneous (fat) space typically between the shoulder blades. Most pets typically experience little sensation of discomfort in the process of receiving insulin injections.

Overweight and obese cats that are diabetic can have their requirement for insulin reduced or discontinued through weight loss and weight management, so such is a crucial component of feline diabetes management plans.

How can diabetes be prevented in dogs and cats?

Dog owners can help prevent Type I diabetes mellitus by prohibiting dietary indiscretion (AKA pica), which is the technical term for inappropriate consumption of environmental materials (soil, trash, household and yard chemicals, etc.). Canine-proofing your home and keeping your pooch on a short leash when setting paws outdoors are two means of preventing dietary indiscretion. Additionally, avoiding processed pet foods and treats containing protein and carbohydrate meals and by-products, chemical preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors puts less functional stress on the pancreas and digestive tract.

Cat owners can help to prevent Type II diabetes mellitus by preventing their feline companion from becoming overweight or obese. In the U.S., pet obesity has reached epidemic proportions. In 2014, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention (APOP) conducted its annual National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Survey by teaming with veterinarians and determining that 52.7 percent of dogs and 57.9 percent of cats are overweight or obese. That’s nearly 100,000,000 (yes, one hundred million) dogs and cats.

Before giving your cat an extra meal or free feeding, consider your role in leading your feline friend down the path to becoming a diabetic. When feeding cats (and dogs), always strive to restrict calories by feeding 25% – 33% (1/4 to 1/3) less than recommended per day on the food bag or can’s label. If your cat needs to lose weight, then schedule a consultation with your veterinarian to create a pet-safe weight loss plan.

Awareness of the potential for pets to develop diabetes makes for an owner’s better oversight in preventing and quickly managing such a life-changing condition for caretakers and their canine and feline companions.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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