Diabetes diagnoses have increased in dogs and cats over the last several years. This chronic disease can lead to serious, potentially life-threatening, complications, especially if not caught early, and managed appropriately. Our team at Town & Country Animal Hospital wants to help by answering some frequently asked questions about diabetes in pets.

What is diabetes in pets?

To understand diabetes, you first need to understand the relationship between insulin and glucose. Glucose is the main energy source for the body’s cells, and is produced when food is digested in the intestines. Glucose is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, and transported through the bloodstream to the body’s tissues and cells. Insulin, which is produced by the pancreas, is needed for the glucose to transfer from the bloodstream into the body’s cells. If insulin is deficient, or if the cells are not able to use the insulin effectively, glucose accumulates in the bloodstream, resulting in hyperglycemia. Two forms of diabetes can affect pets.

  • Insulin-deficient diabetes — This is the most common type of diabetes seen in dogs, and occurs when your pet’s body does not produce enough insulin to prevent high blood glucose accumulation, because the pancreas is damaged or not functioning appropriately.
  • Insulin-resistant diabetes — This is the most common type of diabetes seen in cats, but overweight dogs are also at risk. In addition, female dogs can develop temporary insulin resistance while they are in heat or pregnant. In this type, the pancreas produces insulin, but the cells do not respond to the signal, causing glucose accumulation in the bloodstream.

What are diabetic signs in pets?

Signs indicating your pet may be affected by diabetes include:

  • Increased urination — As glucose levels rise in your pet’s bloodstream, overflow to the urine occurs, drawing large amounts of water into the urinary tract. This results in the need to urinate frequently.
  • Increased thirst — Your pet’s increased urination will lead them to drink more water.
  • Increased hunger — Appetite levels are controlled by glucose levels in the brain, and diabetic pets don’t receive the signal that their appetite has been satisfied, resulting in increased hunger.
  • Weight loss — Despite increased hunger, pets lose weight, because their body is breaking down fats and proteins to use as energy.
  • Cloudy eyes — The majority of diabetic dogs develop cataracts, which appear as cloudy eyes.
  • Poor hair coat — Cats frequently stop grooming, resulting in a poor, unkempt hair coat.

What are the potential complications for diabetic pets?

Insulin-deficient and insulin-resistant diabetes cause a twofold problem for pets. Since the cells can’t use the glucose for energy, they become starved, and the body begins to break down fats and proteins for an alternative fuel source. In addition, the high glucose levels in the bloodstream damage many organs, including the kidneys, eyes, heart, blood vessels, and nerves. Another potential complication is diabetic ketoacidosis. This life-threatening condition occurs when the glucose goes unregulated, resulting in rising ketone levels in the bloodstream, and a resultant shift in the body’s acid base balance. Signs include lethargy, vomiting, increased respiratory rate, and sweet-smelling breath. This condition can be triggered by factors including stress, surgery, fasting, infection, or an underlying health condition.

What puts a pet at higher risk for diabetes?

Certain factors increase a pet’s risk for developing diabetes.

  • Obesity — Obesity is a risk factor for pancreatitis and contributes to insulin resistance.
  • Age — Middle-aged and senior pets are at higher risk for developing diabetes.
  • Gender — Unspayed female dogs and male cats are at higher risk.
  • Chronic pancreatitis — Pancreatitis can extensively damage the cells that produce insulin, resulting in diabetes.
  • Genetics — Pure- and mixed-breed pets can be affected by diabetes, and the condition appears to be genetic. Purebred breeds who are at higher risk include miniature poodles, miniature schnauzers, pugs, dachshunds, and bichon frises.
  • Underlying health conditions — Autoimmune and hormone disorders, and viral diseases may trigger diabetes.
  • Steroid administration — Pets who receive long-term treatment with steroids are at higher risk.

How are diabetic pets treated?

No cure is available for diabetes, but the condition can be managed, especially if caught early.

  • Diet — Our veterinary professionals will likely recommend switching your pet to a prescription diet for diabetic pets. Typically, dogs need a high-fiber, low-fat diet, and cats require a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet.
  • Exercise — Diabetic pets should be exercised regularly and consistently, to avoid sudden spikes or dips in their glucose level.
  • Insulin therapy — Many pets, especially dogs, need life-long daily insulin administration, and their glucose levels need frequent monitoring.

How can I prevent diabetes in my pet?

Diabetes cannot be completely prevented, but you can take steps to reduce your pet’s risk.

  • Weight — Keep your pet at a healthy weight.
  • Exercise — Ensure your pet receives regular exercise.
  • Nutrition — Feed your pet an appropriate diet, avoid dietary indiscretions, and limit treats.
  • Wellness visits — Bring in your pet for regular wellness visits to ensure issues, such as diabetes, are caught in the early stages.

Keeping your pet at a healthy weight and ensuring they have the benefit of regular wellness exams will decrease their risk for developing diabetes, and, if they are affected, help to catch the condition in the early stages. If you would like to schedule a wellness visit for your pet, contact our team at Town & Country Animal Hospital, so we can keep them as healthy as possible.