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Spotlight on: diabetes

8th December 2017

Did you know that pets can become diabetic, just like people? And just like people, this is often related to diet and lifestyle.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus means that the body’s ability to metabolise glucose is impaired. Even though animals rarely eat sugary foods (or shouldn’t anyway!) as they break down their food to release energy, glucose is produced and absorbed from the gut. Normally, high blood glucose causes secretion of insulin by the pancreas. Insulin instructs cells in the body to take up and use glucose, or store it. This controls the level in the blood. Diabetic animals are either unable to produce insulin, or their bodies are unable to respond to insulin.

As a result, although the animal is eating plenty of food, their cells can’t use the energy produced; the body is essentially starving. Animals with diabetes are often ravenously hungry. Despite this increased intake they still lose weight. The excess glucose in the blood ‘spills over’ through the kidneys into the urine, meaning the animal produces a large amount of urine. To compensate for this, they drink a lot more water. Despite their high water intake, they often can’t keep up with their own urine production; diabetic animals are often dehydrated when they first present to the vet.

Diabetic pets are often very thirsty

Why does diabetes develop in pets?

Unlike in humans, diabetes in pets doesn’t easily fall into the “Type 1” and “Type 2” categories that many of us are familiar with. In some cases, something damages the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin (the ‘beta cells’), but this is relatively rare. What is more common, is that the body becomes ‘insensitive’ to insulin, and the pancreas has to produce more and more in order to have the same effect. Eventually, the beta cells become exhausted and are no longer able to produce the insulin that the body desperately needs. By far the most common cause of insulin insensitivity is obesity.

Overweight, inactive pets are most at risk of developing diabetes

What are the signs of diabetes?

The most common signs of diabetes are marked increases in thirst and appetite, accompanied by weight loss and increased urine production.

A pet that is eating an increased amount, but still losing weight should prompt concern

Other signs include:

  • Cataracts – the pupil of the pet’s eye will look cloudy
  • Weakness
  • A low stance on hind legs (especially in cats) due to nerve damage from glucose toxicity
  • Urine infections (sugary urine is a great place for bacteria to live)
  • In some cases, diabetic pets may be very unwell – vomiting, not eating, depressed or collapsed. In most cases, these pets are suffering from something called ‘diabetic ketoacidosis’. This is due to the body trying to mobilise fat to produce vital energy for the brain. These animals are very unwell and require urgent intensive medical care.

What is the treatment for diabetes?

Almost all dogs or cats that are diagnosed with diabetes require insulin to be provided by injection. The dose of this is determined initially by their bodyweight, and is then adjusted based on their clinical response. The best way to measure this is usually by taking serial measurements of their blood glucose during the day, and seeing what the response to insulin is. This can be performed in the clinic, or some owners learn to do this at home (stress in the clinic can alter results, particularly for some cats).

The other thing that is important in diabetic patients is to return them to a lean, healthy weight and provide an appropriate diet. In most diabetic patients, a diet that is high in protein and low in carbohydrates is best, though this can be adjusted based on the individual patient’s needs and preferences. Some cats that are diagnosed with diabetes may even go into remission if their blood glucose is controlled well in the early stages, and they return to a lean body condition and continue a low carbohydrate diet.

Prevention is better than cure!

As with many other conditions, it is far better to prevent diabetes developing in the first place whenever possible. The best way to do this is to make sure your pet is a healthy weight for their size. At Orchard Vets we are a Royal Canin Approved Weight Management Centre. This means all staff have undertaken special training regarding weight management in pet cats and dogs. We will always inform you if your pet is over their ideal body condition score (a scale that measures how much body fat they have) and provide support from our dedicated nursing team to help return pets to a healthy condition. The less time they spend with excess body fat, the less likely it is that conditions such as diabetes will develop, so it’s never too early (or too late) to manage your pet’s weight!