Diabetes in dogs and cats

Understanding diabetes in pets: causes, symptoms and treatment

Did you know that cats and dogs can also develop diabetes? The team at Passionimo answers all your questions about pet diabetes.

Is there a difference between pet diabetes and human diabetes?

As with human diabetes, there are 2 main types of pet diabetes, and both are linked to issues with insulin.

Type I diabetes, formerly known as juvenile diabetes, is the most common in dogs by far. This is an insulin-dependent form of diabetes, meaning that the pancreas does not produce insulin.

Type II diabetes is more frequent in cats and is related to insulin resistance or insufficient production of insulin. It’s more common in cats that are obese, lack exercise, or are older.

How can you tell if a pet developed diabetes?

There are several potential symptoms, which can grow in severity since diabetes is a chronic disease that can worsen over time. That is why we recommend you see your veterinarian as soon as you notice the following changes in your pet, however subtle:

  • Weight loss
  • Skin problems
  • Cataract (the eye becomes misty and whitish)
  • Vomiting
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Severe thirst (your pet is constantly thirsty despite drinking a lot)
  • Frequent urination

Are there dog breeds more at risk of diabetes?

Though dogs of various breeds can develop diabetes; schnauzers, dachshunds, poodles, and golden retrievers are more at risk.

What is the mechanism of diabetes?

Manufactured by the pancreas, insulin is the messenger opening the door to glucose (a type of sugar) being transported to the cells. In diabetic pets, the messenger (insulin) doesn’t do its job, and glucose remains in the blood.

Since glucose is the cells’ sustenance, when deprived, they send a signal to the brain to generate appetite in the host. The pet eats but loses weight because its cells are not fed. Knowing that glucose does not belong in blood, when it reaches the kidneys, it gets sent to the bladder to be eliminated through urine.

But the bladder doesn’t like this high concentration of glucose in urine, so it attempts to dilute it by attracting as much water as possible. Even when drinking copious amounts of water, the pet gets dehydrated because all that water is released through urine.

Can diabetes cause other issues?

Yes, diabetes can lead to cataracts, blood pressure issues, and urinary tract infections due to the high level of sugar in urine.

Are there treatments available?

There are no treatments for type I diabetes. It can be controlled with 2 daily injections done by the pet owner.

As with human diabetes, owners learn to test the blood glucose in their pets and to adjust the insulin dosage accordingly. The insulin is injected subcutaneously, and the administration is easy and practically painless. It’s recommended to give the injections while pets are distracted; for example, when they are busy eating.

Controlling the blood sugar level in pets is not as complicated as you might think, since the aim is not to reach a perfect level as is the case in humans. For the sake of comparison, let’s just say that a slight dizziness due to a light case of hypoglycemia would not have the same consequences for a dog than it would for a human who has to take the wheel… Additionally, because pets do not live as long, they tend to die before they can be affected by the long-term effects of hyperglycemia.

On the other hand, type II diabetes, when detected early and controlled quickly, can sometimes be treatable. How? By controlling hyperglycemia, which makes cells less resistant to insulin, so that, in the end, injections are no longer required.

I'm not comfortable giving injections to my pet. Are there oral drugs available?

Though there are oral drugs available, they are used rarely in veterinary medicine because diabetes is often diagnosed at a later stage due to clients consulting too late.

Oral medication helps the pancreas to release as much insulin as possible or cells to be more sensitive to the low level of insulin available. For that reason, it will not be effective for type I diabetes (more common in dogs) where there is no insulin available.

For cats (type II diabetes), normal blood glucose levels are between 4 and 9. Oral hypoglycemics will lower glucose levels by a few points (about 3). However, diabetic cats we see in our practice typically have a blood glucose level higher than 25, which requires a much more aggressive treatment.

And you should know that giving oral medication to a cat is not that easy! You have to learn a few tricks, and practice definitely makes perfect. Your Passionimo veterinarian and animal health technician can give you a quick training.

Do diabetic pets need a special diet?

Yes. Dogs need a fibre-rich diet to slow down intestinal transit and stretch out sugar absorption over a longer period. For cats, we recommend highly digestible protein sources to improve control of blood glucose.

In all cases, carbohydrates must be restricted as they increase blood glucose levels. Here again, this is easier to control in pets since, contrary to humans, pets eat the same thing every day.

Can pets die from diabetes?

Certainly, in the same way that humans used to die from it. And this is a slow and painful death, with pets winding up completely dehydrated, cachectic (extreme thinness), and very sick. This is assuredly not a fate you would wish on your companion. So, please see your veterinarian as soon as possible if your pet drinks and eats a lot, has increased urination, and is losing weight.

Are there ways to prevent diabetes?

Type I diabetes, more common in dogs, is not preventable. However, diabetes in cats can be prevented by making all efforts to keep your pet slim and physically active, even if you have an indoor cat.

This can be achieved by leading your cat on a food chase by hiding food in accessible but unusual spots. You could also have your cat play/eat with a food dispensing ball, which forces pets to move their paws to gain access to their kibbles individually.

Do you have other questions?

Please do not hesitate to contact the Passionimo veterinary clinic closest to you.

You have more questions?

Do not hesitate to contact the nearest Passionimo veterinary clinic.