Diabetes mellitus is a common endocrine disorder that affects roughly 1 in 300 cats and dogs. Like humans, pets can experience various diabetes types, although it is not as simple as classifying a pet with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Cats tend to develop Type 2 diabetes, whereas dogs generally have Type 1, but diabetes classification is often fluid and difficult to categorize. Although this disease requires close attention to keep under control, many diabetic cases can be successfully managed, and pets with diabetes can live long and happy lives. 

What is diabetes in pets?

Diabetes is a condition caused by dysfunction or complete loss of function of the pancreas’ beta cells. These cells produce insulin, an essential hormone that helps glucose in the bloodstream enter the body’s cells to be used for energy. Type 1 diabetes, in which the pancreas completely loses the ability to manufacture insulin, is described as insulin-deficient diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is referred to as insulin-resistant diabetes, in which the pet can manufacture insulin, but the body does not respond. Some pets fall in one category or the other, while others are more difficult to place, but both groups require insulin therapy to control their diabetes. 

Is my pet at risk for developing diabetes?

Most diabetes cases occur in middle-aged and older pets, especially those who are overweight or obese. In dogs, females are affected twice as often as males, and small breeds seem most at risk, particularly beagles, miniature poodles, dachshunds, and schnauzers. On the other hand, male cats seem more commonly affected than females, with Burmese, Norwegian forest, Russian blue, Abyssinian, and Tonkinese breeds appearing the most predisposed to diabetes development.

In addition to breed predisposition, age, and weight, underlying medical conditions can increase your pet’s diabetes risk. Pituitary and adrenal disease can predispose a pet to diabetes development, along with medications such as steroids. 

What diabetes signs can I expect in my pet?

Diabetes can develop slowly, and take weeks to months to be noticed. Signs can include:

  • Polyuria
  • Polydipsia
  • Polyphagia
  • Weight loss
  • Cataracts—dogs only
  • Weakness

The hallmark diabetes signs are known as the 3 P’s—polyuria, polydipsia, and polyphagia (i.e., excessive urination, thirst, and hunger).  

Diabetic animals also have a decreased resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, and often develop chronic or recurrent infections that typically affect the bladder or skin. Urinary tract infections are extremely common, but the signs can be confused with unregulated diabetes.

How will I know if my pet has diabetes?

Uncomplicated diabetes is relatively easy to diagnose through routine blood work and a urinalysis. The main diabetes indicator in a pet is an excessively high blood glucose level, after considering that the potential elevation is stress-related. A urinalysis will also shore up a diabetes diagnosis if glucose is seen in the urine. 

How is my pet’s diabetes treated?

To successfully manage a pet’s diabetes, a dedicated family and veterinary team is essential, as management is lifelong and can be frustrating if other diseases are present. Treatment involves a combination of weight reduction, appropriate diet, and insulin. In cats, high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets are recommended, while diets high in fiber and complex carbohydrates are preferred for dogs. Also, the treatment plan must include routine blood glucose curves to monitor your pet’s insulin response, since insulin requirements can change over time. 

Left untreated, diabetes can lead to liver dysfunction and ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition. Without aggressive treatment, diabetic ketoacidosis can lead to brain swelling, kidney failure, pancreatitis, and rapid death.

What happens if my pet’s blood sugar is too low?

If you can test your pet’s blood sugar at home using a specific pet glucometer—not a human glucometer, which is often inaccurate—verify their glucose level. A normal glucose level in pets ranges from 75 to 120 milligrams per deciliter of blood. A low glucose level can be an emergency situation, especially if you notice any of the following hypoglycemia signs in your pet:

  • Lethargy
  • Slow response to stimuli
  • Weakness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Muscle spasms
  • Trembling
  • Irregular heart rate or breathing
  • Paralysis of the hind legs
  • Seizures
  • Collapse or unconsciousness

If your diabetic pet displays any hypoglycemia signs or has a low blood glucose level, give them one tablespoon of Karo syrup or honey. For pets who are too weak to swallow, or unconscious, rub the syrup on their gums or place it under their tongue. Contact your family veterinarian or our animal emergency hospital immediately if you suspect your pet is hypoglycemic.

While your pet’s diabetes can be managed with your family veterinarian’s help, our Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center team is always here for urgent care, second opinions, or specialized internal medicine care. If your diabetic pet becomes lethargic, appears confused, is vomiting, or develops muscle tremors because of hypoglycemia, contact us for an appointment for prompt treatment.