November: National Pet Diabetes Month

Ellen Zangla Photography -Leesburg Veterinary Hospital

What is diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus is a common disorder in dogs and cats, particularly those who are overweight or obese. Diabetes mellitus is also referred to as “sugar diabetes” because it results from the failure of the pancreas to regulate blood sugar, or glucose. Juvenile diabetes, which occurs in animals less than a year of age, is uncommon.

In healthy animals, insulin is secreted by the pancreas after a meal and moves blood sugar into cells, where it is converted into energy. Diabetes mellitus occurs when the pancreas does not produce enough insulin (Type 1) or when the body’s cells don’t respond well to insulin (Type 2). Most animals suffer from Type 2 Diabetes.  In either case, glucose can not enter the cells, blood glucose levels build up in the bloodstream, and glucose spills over into the urine.  A complicated cycle ensues, as sugar in the urine causes the dog to pass large amounts of dilute urine and to drink large quantities of water. Appetite is controlled by glucose levels in the brain. Without insulin, the brain doesn’t receive the signal that appetite has been satisfied, and the pet responds by eating more and more. Paradoxically, the pet will lose muscle mass despite the increased appetite because the glucose can not be used by the body. Thus, the classic signs of diabetes in dogs are:

  • Weight loss
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased appetite
  • Increased urination

Excessive urination is often the sign that prompts owners to bring their pets to the hospital for an exam.

Contact your veterinarian immediately if your pet displays any of these signs, even though he or she may not appear to be terribly ill. The consequences of untreated diabetes can be severe.

Diabetes in Dogs and Cats Infographic - Leesburg Veterinary Hospital

How will my vet test for diabetes?

Your veterinarian will begin by performing a comprehensive exam and ask questions relating to the symptoms the pet may be displaying.  Next, they will run laboratory tests looking for high levels of glucose in the blood and urine.  If these tests prove the diagnosis, your vet will run additional blood and urine tests to look for other conditions that often occur in dogs with diabetes, such as bladder, kidney, or skin infections; Cushing’s disease (another endocrine imbalance); pancreatitis; fat accumulation in the liver; and cataracts in the eyes.

Pet Diabetes Month - Leesburg Veterinary Hospital

How do I take care of my pet with diabetes?

Diabetes is a treatable disorder in pets and with proper control, these dogs can live for many years. However, successful treatment requires a major commitment from the pet owner who, in most cases, will need to inject insulin once or twice a day, feed a prescribed diet on a consistent schedule, and carefully monitor the pet’s appetite, weight, water consumption, urine output, and possibly test for glucose in the urine. As difficult as caring for a diabetic pet may sound, most owners are able to achieve success and find that it quickly becomes routine.

Initially, many pets are hospitalized for a few days for testing to start the regulation process.  Your pet will receive insulin and blood glucose levels and will be monitored carefully to determine the type of insulin, effective dose, and frequency of administration. Some newly diagnosed diabetic pets that are very ill and have been vomiting or have not been eating or drinking for several days have a dangerous complication called ketoacidosis, and a week or more of hospital care may be needed to stabilize the pet’s condition with intravenous fluids and insulin.

Before your pet is sent home, you will receive detailed instructions and training on how to administer insulin. You may be relieved to find that the technique is not difficult to master and the injections are not painful or upsetting for your pet.  Your veterinarian’s instructions must be followed carefully. If too much insulin is given, low blood sugar or hypoglycemia, a serious complication that can result in seizures, blindness, coma or death, could occur. If too little insulin is given or treatment is inconsistent, diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) can occur. Animals with DKA have no appetite or a reduced interest in food, feel nauseated, often vomit, and become dehydrated.

Diet is an important component of diabetes treatment because insulin needs are closely related to the type and amount of food eaten by the pet. Your veterinarian will recommend a high-fiber or high-protein diet that is lower in sugar and digested slowly. If your pet is overweight or obese, a weight management diet will be prescribed. As the animal loses weight, less insulin may be needed. When your pet is fed is also important: ideally, diabetic pets should be fed two meals a day, just before each insulin injection.

Diabetes in Dogs and Cats - Leesburg Veterinary Hospital

Your pet’s insulin needs may change over time — for example, if the pet loses weight, is exercising more or less, or develops another health problem—and this can necessitate a change in the type of insulin or frequency of injection. At first, your veterinarian will need to monitor your pet’s blood glucose levels frequently. Once good control is achieved, you’ll bring your pet in for a checkup every 3 to 6 months or more often if other health problems develop.

Animals with diabetes mellitus are more prone to the development of other complications. Therefore, it’s important to closely monitor your pet’s appetite, urine production, and urine glucose levels at home and alert your veterinarian immediately if there are any significant changes.

Preventing Diabetes

While diabetes is not 100% preventable, you can help reduce the risk of your pet getting the disease by controlling his/her diet and maintaining a healthy weight with regular exercise.

Preventing Diabetes in Dogs and Cats Exercise Leesburg Veterinary Hospital

You may feel overwhelmed by the diagnosis of diabetes in your pet—it’s OK to have many questions! Your veterinarian and the entire LVH Team will work closely with you to ensure the best possible outcome for your beloved companion.  You can download and print out the information contained in this article from the Related Links tab on our website or by clicking on the link here:

Diabetes Mellitus in Dogs and Cats – Handout

Obesity and Weight Management in Dogs – Handout

Obesity and Weight Management in Cats – Handout






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