February 3, 2020

Medical Issues

Diabetes in Pets

by Aili V. Heintz, DVM

What is diabetes?

Diabetes (or diabetes mellitus) is a disease where the sugar (glucose) levels in the bloodstream become elevated. Both people and pets can get diabetes.   To understand diabetes, you first must understand a little about how the body works.

Glucose is a type of sugar that serves as the main source of energy to help fuel the cells in the body. An organ called the pancreas helps to produce insulin. Insulin is what is required to move the glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream to the cells of the body to help fuel them. For diabetic people and pets, the glucose is not moved into the cells like it should be. For this reason, an increased amount of glucose left in the bloodstream, and that is why   we see a high glucose level on blood work.

Are there certain pets that are more likely to get diabetes?

Diabetes can occur at any age for dogs and cats. Most cats tend to be diagnosed at 6 years or more of age, and most dogs tend to be diagnosed around 7-10 years of age. Pets that are overweight are at an increased risk of developing diabetes.

Pets that have other diseases or health problems may also be at a higher risk for becoming diabetic. These other predisposing health issues include diseases such as hyperthyroidism in cats, pancreatitis, heart disease, or kidney disease. Certain medications like steroids, if used long-term, may also predispose some pets to diabetes.

What are some signs of diabetes?

Some symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Increased drinking/thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Increased urinary accidents
  • Muscle atrophy
  • A sweet smell to your pet’s urine

Some pets may show no outward signs, especially in early diabetes. This is what makes routine blood work for your pet so important! We veterinarians use results of the blood work to check on the health on the inside of your pet, just as we examine the outside of your pet’s body. With this blood work, we can watch for gradual trends that may allow us to diagnose issues more quickly.

How will I know if my pet has diabetes?

If you are concerned that your pet may be diabetic or if you are noticing some of the above signs, please make an appointment with your vet as soon as possible. The doctor will perform an exam to look for other issues and will recommend blood work. The blood test will allow your vet to evaluate your pet’s blood sugar levels and to assess your pet’s kidneys and liver. The doctor may also recommend checking a urine (or pee) sample to look for sugar in the urine or for signs of secondary infections.

If my pet gets diabetes, is it treatable?

Yes! For pets with diabetes, we typically recommend twice-daily insulin injections. While the thought of giving your pet injections or shots everyday may sound scary to you, most pets actually tolerate this very easily. The needle is very tiny, and the amount of medication you have to give is small, so most pets don’t seem to mind. In addition to insulin injections, we usually recommend a diet change to a food lower in carbohydrates. (Remember carbohydrates are converted to sugars in the body, so by reducing carbohydrates can help your pet maintain a more constant blood sugar level). Diet changes typically will not “fix” or cure things, but they definitely help in diabetic control and maintenance.

Pets with diabetes will need frequent monitoring of blood sugar values. In addition, those pets may need frequent insulin dosing changes depending on how they are responding to the treatment. It is important to note that not all pets will respond in the same way to treatment. Some pets will become quickly regulated on insulin while others may take a few months of dose changes before being regulated.

My cousin was just diagnosed with diabetes and doctors started her on a pill. Is this an option for my pet?

No, unfortunately human and animal diabetes are a little different in how the disease responds in the body. Animal diabetes does not tend to respond to the pill treatment that some people may use for their own mild forms of diabetes.

Will my pet always have diabetes, or will it eventually go away?

Just like most people with diabetes, once a pet is diagnosed with the disease, he will have it his entire life. The one exception is that for some cats, after starting treatment, they may go through a diabetic remission. This means that some cats, while on treatment for diabetes, will gradually stop needing treatment and their blood sugar levels will return back to normal without insulin. If you are lucky enough to have a cat who does go into remission, it is important to remember that diabetes may return again later. I recommend you monitor your pet’s blood work closely to notice any changes as soon as possible. 

What if I choose not to treat my pet’s diabetes?

I strongly recommend that you treat your pet’s diabetes. Diabetes, if left untreated, can lead to long-term secondary health issues including permanent diabetic cataracts, chronic reoccurring bladder infections, and high blood pressure to name just a few. Untreated diabetes in pets can also lead to seizures and death.

If you are unsure about what to do for your pet’s diabetes, please talk to your veterinarian. She can help to ease your fears of injections or to find a different diet option. We are here to help support you and your pet through this disease. We realize that the injections and long-term care can sound scary, but diabetes is a manageable disease. 

What are some things that I can do to try to prevent diabetes?

Just like for people, weight can be a contributing factor to the development of diabetes. Keep your pet at a healthy weight to help reduce the risk of diabetes. Proper exercise and a healthy diet will help your pet stay as healthy as possible.

Nobody wants his pet to be sick or have a long-term medical condition, but diabetes can be managed. Dogs and cats can have long and happy lives, even with diabetes. Early detection, proper monitoring, and treatment, along with exercise and diet, are the keys to success. If you are concerned your pet may be diabetic or if you have any questions regarding your pet’s diabetes, please contact your vet as soon as possible.

Dr. Heintz and her dog, MimiDr. Heintz is a small and exotic animal veterinarian at Countrycare Animal Complex in Green Bay, WI. She earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Illinois – Urbana/Champaign. Her passion is helping all animals, whether furry, scaly, or feathered, lead long and healthy lives.