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Diabetes: Is Your Pet At Risk? – Dr. Karen Whala


Quick – What do Miniature Pinchers, Samoyeds, Poodles, Dachshunds and overweight middle-aged, neutered cats have in common?
They’re all at increased risk for developing diabetes! As this is Diabetes Awareness Month, I would like to share a little information about this not too uncommon condition which can be similar to what humans suffer.

Diabetes Mellitus is a condition of high blood sugar commonly shared with humans. Cats more commonly develop the Type 2 or adult-onset diabetes where obesity and diet increase the risks whereas dogs more commonly develop the Type 1 or Juvenile-onset diabetes which requires insulin to control.

What is Diabetes and what types do Dogs or Cats get?

Diabetes is one of the easiest diagnoses to make as a veterinarian and can be confirmed by the finding of high glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood coupled with high sugar in the urine. Insulin is a hormone which is necessary to control the body’s levels of blood sugar and when insulin is absent or ineffective, Diabetes occurs. There are 2 main ways that insulin fails to work: 1) The pancreas, the organ that produces insulin, no longer makes insulin (type 1 diabetes) or 2) There is plenty of insulin but the body’s cells no longer respond to it (type 2 diabetes). The latter form is the most common in humans and cats whereas the former occurs most commonly in dogs.

How does insulin work?

After someone eats a meal, the body processes the various macronutrients of the food into blood sugar or glucose. As you can imagine, these levels spike shortly after a meal which then triggers the pancreas to release its stores of insulin. The insulin effectively acts as a ‘key’ to open the doors of our body’s individual cells thus allowing them to use the sugar for energy to perform various functions. In a healthy state, the insulin maintains the levels of blood sugar in a very narrow range. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas produces very little or no insulin which results in very high blood sugar levels which ‘spill’ into the urine. Because the cells are unable to use the sugar, they effectively ‘starve’. This causes weight loss despite a strong appetite. This is the most common type that dogs develop and thus once diagnosed, most dogs absolutely require insulin injections for life.

In cats or individuals who suffer from Type 2 Diabetes, there is usually plenty of insulin produced but the cells do not respond to it. Like a key that doesn’t fit a lock. There is plenty of sugar and plenty of insulin but the cells perceive to be starving and can’t utilize the sugar that is available. This is often referred to as insulin resistance and can be caused by many factors including obesity, medications like steroids and hormone imbalances (estrous). This type of diabetes more commonly responds to dietary manipulation and weight management, though sometimes insulin injections are also necessary.

So What Would Happen If Diabetes Remains Untreated or Poorly Treated?

Complications arising from poorly or uncontrolled diabetes are similar regardless of type of diabetes. Chronically elevated blood sugar in the blood can lead to life threatening fatty liver in cats, continued weight loss (muscle and fat), kidney/bladder infections (bacteria love the sugar in the urine), weakness, vomiting, increased thirst, dry eyes, seizures and severe dehydration and other serious life threatening sequela.

How do I prevent my dog or cat from getting diabetes?

In dogs, diabetes is thought to be due to several uncontrollable factors such as genetic susceptibility. Though any dog can develop diabetes, certain breeds of dogs are believed to be predisposed to such as Miniature Pinchers, Samoyeds, Poodles, Dachshunds, cairn terriers and beagles. Other risk factors include history of pancreatitis, pregnancy, obesity and intact female status. Thus to reduce the risk of your dog developing diabetes, we recommend maintaining an ideal weight, avoiding factors that cause pancreatitis (high fat treats/diets) and spaying your female dogs.

In cats, it is even more important to maintain an ideal weight as obesity is believed to be the largest factor for development in cats. Other factors include regular use of long-acting steroids, concurrent disease conditions such as kidney disease and diets high in carbohydrates. Reducing risks include maintaining more ideal body weight, feeding low carbohydrate diet (higher meat-based protein) and reducing the need for repeated doses of long acting steroids. As in humans, early diagnosis and treatment with appropriate diet can reverse symptoms and insulin requirements. Unlike in dogs, diabetes in cats can go into remission where insulin injections are not needed!

Diabetes is a complex and multi-factorial condition often requiring lifelong insulin or lifelong dietary management to control. Some factors predisposing our pets to this life-threatening condition are out of our control, but we can do much to minimize the risks.

If you have specific questions about dietary management and prevention in your pet, please don’t hesitate to contact any of the doctors at Pet Medical Center and Spa!