Your pet’s diabetes diagnosis can feel like a life sentence for everyone involved. You likely imagine your pet needing endless needle sticks, veterinary appointments, and dietary restrictions, while you constantly measure, record, and manage every detail. 

Many pet owners are confused and overwhelmed by the ins and outs of diabetes. While your family veterinarian is your best resource for your pet’s custom treatment plan, an improved understanding of the condition can help you feel more confident about providing proper home care. Here are some answers to common questions about diabetes in pets provided by the Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center.

Question: What is diabetes in pets?

Answer: In a healthy body, insulin is produced by specialized pancreatic cells, and used to transport glucose (i.e., sugar) from the bloodstream to the tissues and organs, where the sugar becomes energy. Diabetic pets have an impaired ability to produce insulin because of pancreatic damage, or they cannot use insulin. Without insulin to move glucose into the cells, the pet becomes hyperglycemic (i.e., high blood sugar), which leads to various health problems.

Q: Why is regulating my pet’s blood glucose important?

A: Uncontrolled diabetes can lead to devastating health consequences, including cataracts, infections, nerve damage (i.e., neuropathy), organ failure, and life-threatening ketoacidosis (i.e., metabolic imbalance).

Q: Do pets have different types of diabetes?

A: Pets can have two unrelated forms of diabetes—diabetes mellitus, which involves the blood glucose, and diabetes insipidus (i.e., water diabetes), which results from water loss caused by insufficient antidiuretic hormone levels. We focus here on diabetes mellitus.

Diabetes mellitus (i.e., sugar diabetes) can be further classified by type:

  • Type l (i.e., insulin-dependent diabetes) — This diabetes type responds to insulin supplementation, required to replace an under-functioning pancreas.
  • Type II (i.e., non-insulin dependent diabetes or acquired diabetes) — Pets with Type II diabetes produce insulin, but their body does not recognize or use the insulin to control blood glucose. Obesity is a common cause of Type II diabetes.

Q: Why did my pet get diabetes?

A: Diabetes is relatively common in middle-aged dogs and cats. Most diabetic pets have a damaged pancreas caused by chronic inflammation (i.e., pancreatitis), other medical conditions, or chronic medication use. Certain breeds are predisposed to diabetes, including poodles, schnauzers, dachshunds, and Cairn terriers in dogs, and Burmese, Russian blue, Tonkinese, and Abyssinian cats. Certain risk factors may also increase a pet’s susceptibility to diabetes, including:

  • Being spayed or neutered
  • Chronic steroid use
  • Reduced physical activity
  • Age
  • Stress
  • Obesity 

If your pet is overweight, a controlled weight loss plan designed and supervised by your veterinarian may reduce your pet’s clinical signs, or lead to remission.

Q: What are diabetes signs in pets?

A: The earliest diabetes indicator in pets is typically increased thirst and urination, caused by the kidney’s inability to reabsorb water from the bloodstream when excess glucose is present in the urine. Additional signs may include:

  • Increased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • House soiling 
  • Lethargy
  • Wobbly gait in cats
  • Vomiting
  • Poor hair coat

Diabetic pets also may lose weight, despite a ravenous appetite, because their free-flowing glucose is useless without insulin, and their body is starved for energy.

Q: How is diabetes managed in pets?

A: Diabetes treatment is dependent on the cause, type, and owner education and compliance. Management, which involves carefully balancing glucose levels to ensure the pet maintains a steady state rather than dangerous dips and spikes, takes time for the owner to establish, and for the pet and owner to feel comfortable. Diabetic treatment plans commonly include:

  • Blood glucose monitoring — A single drop of blood is tested with a handheld glucometer, typically before feeding.
  • Supplemental or replacement insulin — Various insulins are available in both short and long-acting forms. Your veterinarian will prescribe the insulin most suitable for your pet, and demonstrate how and when to give the medication, and how much. Dosing must be exact—overdosing can lead to a dangerous drop in blood sugar (i.e., hypoglycemia). 
  • Blood glucose curve — To understand how your pet’s glucose rises and falls throughout the day, they may need serial monitoring in the hospital.
  • Routine preventive care — Regular exams and lab work (e.g., blood and urine testing) help your veterinarian detect subtle changes in your pet’s condition.
  • Scheduled meals — Diabetic pets should be fed on a strict schedule, to maintain appropriate glucose levels, and snacks should be avoided, to prevent imbalance.
  • Nutrition — In some cases, your veterinarian may advise changing your pet’s diet, especially if they need to lose weight. High fiber diets can help improve glucose regulation.

Q: Can diabetes in pets become an emergency?

A: Yes. Ketoacidosis is a potentially deadly complication that happens when the body substitutes fatty acids for glucose, which causes the blood to become dangerously acidic. Pets are visibly ill and demonstrate the diabetic signs listed above, but they also have a reduced appetite and lethargy. Emergency treatment is necessary, because prolonged ketoacidosis can result in organ failure, brain damage, and death. 

Diabetes should never be the end of the road for your pet. By carefully adhering to their treatment plan and communicating regularly with your family veterinarian, you can give your dog or cat a relatively normal life—without either of you becoming a prisoner to their diagnosis.

If your diabetic pet is showing ketoacidosis or a possible insulin overdose signs, such as lethargy, coordination loss, or unresponsiveness, immediately contact the most trusted Spokane animal emergency hospital, the Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center