Diabetes: don’t miss the warning signs

Like humans, pets can develop diabetes.

Signs that your pet may have this life-threatening disease include: excessive urination; excessive drinking; increased appetite; and weight loss.

In cases where the diabetes is not treated promptly and allowed to progress to the point of a crisis, symptoms may include a loss of appetite, weakness, seizures, twitching, and intestinal problems (diarrhea or constipation).

What causes it, the symptoms and how it is treated differ for cats and dogs but what is common is the seriousness of the disease. Diabetes in pets must be treated. If your dog or cat shows any of the symptoms listed below, please book an appointment with your veterinarian.

Dogs with diabetes

Obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes in dogs. Genes and gender are also factors. Also, inflammation of the pancreas and medication-induced diabetes.

German Shepherds, Schnauzers, Beagles, and Poodles are at higher risk of diabetes than other breeds. Golden Retrievers and Keeshonds are more prone to juvenile diabetes.

Female dogs are three times more likely to develop diabetes than males.  Generally, diabetes occurs in dogs in middle age (6-9 years) but can also present earlier for specific breeds, particularly the Golden Retriever and Keeshond.

Watch for weight loss and excessive drinking

While many cases of diabetes are seen in older dogs, it can occur at any age.

Symptoms and signs

Early signs

  • Excessive urination
  • Excessive thirst
  • Hunger
  • Weight loss even with normal appetite

Later signs

  • Anorexia (complete loss of appetite)
  • Lethargy and depression
  • Vomiting

Development of ketoacidosis: the body is unable to use blood sugar (glucose) because there isn’t enough insulin and instead, it breaks down fat as an alternative source of fuel.

  • Depression
  • Vomiting
  • Enlarged liver
  • Cataracts
  • Bladder or kidney infection
  • Obesity

While diabetes cannot be prevented exactly, the risk for getting diabetes can be reduced. Do not allow your dog to become obese, encourage exercise, and feed the best possible dog-appropriate food you can afford.

What should I do?

Get to your vet for a diagnosis. If your dog does get diabetes, then the goal is to prevent complications from developing. The most important step is good communication. Talk to your vet about any changes you observe in your dog. Ask questions about anything you do not understand; there is a lot to know.

What happens next?

After a physical exam and discussion of your dog’s symptoms, your vet will take blood and urine samples for testing. In addition to checking the glucose (sugar) levels in the blood and urine, your vet will be checking for evidence of other disease that have symptoms similar to diabetes, like kidney disease and hyperthyroidism.

She will also be checking for conditions that can complicate the treatment of diabetes, like infections and ketoacidosis, which requires hospitalisation.

Treatment

The course of treatment will be individualised according to your dog’s needs.

Your vet will show you how to administer insulin at home; usually two injections daily. Treatment may also involve changes to your dog’s diet. Your vet will also give you advice on what to do if you inadvertently administer too much insulin and how to test your dog’s glucose levels.

Communication between family members is also important. Who will give the dog insulin and when? What does the dog eat and when? How many and what kind of treats? What the symptoms are for insulin overdose and what should be done? This information must be passed on to house sitters, housekeepers and neighbours who may also look after your dog from time to time.

Diabetes often occurs in cats in middle age

Cats with diabetes

The most common causes of diabetes in cats are obesity and ageing.  Feeding your cat too much ‘people’ food can cause inflammation of the pancreas, the location of insulin-producing cells, which can inhibit insulin production. Prolonged use of corticosteroids can also predispose the cat to diabetes.

There appears to be very little gender predisposition to this disease in cats, although it is slightly more common in males than females.  As with dogs, the onset of diabetes in cats occurs most often in middle age.

Signs and symptoms

  • Increased water consumption
  • Increased urination, possibly urinating outside the litterbox
  • Increased appetite (early stages) or loss of appetite (late stages)
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting

Sometimes the cat will develop a plantigrade stance – that is, he will stand and walk with his hocks touching or nearly touching the ground. This is damage to the nerves caused by diabetes.

What do I do?

If a diabetic cat goes untreated for long enough, it will develop ketoacidosis (where the body begins to break down fat as an alternative source of fuel). Cats at this stage will not eat or drink, become dehydrated and more lethargic. Eventually they will slip into a coma and die if not treated immediately.

It is important that you schedule an appointment with your veterinarian if you suspect your cat has diabetes. The goal is to prevent complications from developing. The most important step is good communication. Talk to your vet about any changes you observe in your cat. Ask questions; there is a lot to know.

What happens next?

After a physical exam and discussion of your cat’s symptoms, your vet will take blood and urine samples for testing. In addition to checking the glucose (sugar) levels in the blood and urine, your vet will be checking for evidence of other disease that have symptoms similar to diabetes, like kidney disease and hyperthyroidism.

She will also be checking for conditions that can complicate the treatment of diabetes, like infections and ketoacidosis, which requires hospitalisation.

Treatment

The course of treatment will be individualised according to your cat’s needs.

Your vet will show you how to measure your cat’s blood glucose levels at home and how to administer insulin; usually two injections daily. Treatment may also involve changes to your cat’s diet. Your vet will also give you advice on what to do if you inadvertently administer too much insulin.

Communication between family members is also important. Who will give the cat insulin and when? What does the cat eat and when? How many and what kind of treats? What the symptoms are for insulin overdose and what should be done? This information must be passed on to house sitters, housekeepers and neighbours who may also look after your cat from time to time.

Having a pet with a chronic illness like diabetes requires your full commitment. S/he will require twice daily insulin injections, most likely for life, as well as regular blood tests.