More than 29 million people in the United States have diabetes, and more than 80 million are at risk of developing the disease. But this fast-growing public health crisis doesn’t just affect humans. Two of America’s most beloved household pets, cats and dogs, also are prone to diabetes, and pet owners should know the warning signs that require immediate evaluation by a veterinarian.
November is generally recognized as National Diabetes Month, during which diabetics, their caregivers and their families are encouraged to share their stories, and health care professionals, organizations and communities across the country are called upon to bring increased attention to the disease. This year’s theme, “Managing Diabetes – It’s Not Easy, But It’s Worth It,” highlights the importance of managing diabetes to prevent other serious health problems such as heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, vision loss and amputation.
But November is also National Pet Diabetes Month, and in support of this unique cause, animal advocates have been raising awareness of risk factors and symptoms pet owners may not recognize as potential indicators of diabetes.
Diabetes mellitus is a chronic disease in which the body is unable to regulate glucose (blood sugar) levels due to problems with insulin production or function. There are two kinds of this condition: Type 1 (insulin dependent), which occurs when there is very little or no production of insulin by the pancreas, and Type 2 (non-insulin dependent), which occurs when the pancreas produces adequate amounts of insulin but the body is resistant to it.
According to the 2016 State of Pet Health report from Banfield Pet Hospital, the world’s largest veterinary practice with more than 900 hospitals and 16,000 associates, the prevalence of diabetes mellitus amongst dogs went from 13.1 cases per 10,000 in 2006 to 23.6 cases per 10,000 in 2015, a 79.7 percent increase. During that same period, the prevalence amongst cats increased from 57.2 cases per 10,000 to 67.6 cases per 10,000, and while that was only an 18.1 percent increase, Banfield says diabetes mellitus is much more common in cats than in dogs. Last year, Nevada, Montana, Iowa, Wisconsin and Kentucky had the greatest prevalence of diabetes mellitus amongst dogs, and New Mexico, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Wisconsin and Arkansas had the greatest prevalence amongst cats, according to the Banfield report, which was based on medical data obtained from analyses of 2.5 million dogs and 500,000 cats. (There were 40 cases per 10,000 of diabetes mellitus amongst dogs and 108 cases per 10,000 amongst cats in Maryland.)
Though more common in older pets, diabetes can occur at any age, even in pregnant pets. Banfield says cats can suffer from either form of diabetes mellitus but are more commonly affected by Type 2, and that dogs are more commonly affected by Type 1. But the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says the difference between the types is less clear in pets than it is in humans. Nevertheless, the consensus regarding the prognosis of diabetes in pets is that while it isn’t curable, if detected early, and with proper management and veterinary care, pets can live long, healthy lives.
Pet owners should be familiar with the early signs of pet diabetes, which include:
- Polydipsia (excessive thirst)
- Polyuria (excessive urination)
- Weight loss despite a good appetite
- Cloudy eyes (especially in dogs)
- Decreased appetite
- Chronic or recurring infections (including skin and urinary infections)
If there isn’t enough insulin in the body, or if the body is unable to use the insulin, glucose accumulates in high levels in the blood, a condition called hyperglycemia. When the blood glucose reaches a certain level, the glucose overflows into the urine and draws large volumes of water with it, which is why pets with diabetes drink more water and urinate more frequently, the AVMA says.
Obesity is a significant risk factor for developing diabetes, and as dogs and cats age, they may develop other diseases that can either result in diabetes or significantly affect their response to treatment, including overactivity of the adrenal gland in dogs or the thyroid gland in cats, pancreatitis, kidney disease, and urinary tract infections. Long-term use of medications containing corticosteroids is another risk factor for diabetes.
Early detection of pet diabetes is very important. If pet owners notice any of the early warning signs, they should make an appointment with a veterinarian right away. Banfield recommends having a veterinarian inspect your pet for clinical signs of diabetes at least twice a year. After confirming a diagnosis of diabetes and checking for other health problems, the veterinarian will likely begin treatment by establishing diet specifications and instructing pet owners on how to administer insulin injections, which the AVMA says are given via a very small needle (since insulin cannot be taken orally) and are generally well tolerated by pets.
Pets with diabetes require lifelong treatment with special diets, regular blood and urine tests, a good fitness regimen and regular insulin injections. Caring for a pet with diabetes can be challenging for veterinarians and pet owners because each pet responds differently to treatment. Veterinarians may need to adjust treatment regimens periodically based on what he or she observes during examinations. Keeping blood sugar at normal levels—making sure they aren’t too high or too low—is the key to managing pet diabetes. Owners must make sure their pets are absorbing enough sugars to balance the insulin’s effect of removing sugars from the bloodstream.
For dogs with diabetes, the AVMA recommends a high-fiber diet and a daily exercise regimen that takes into consideration the dog’s weight, age and overall health. Pet owners may also want to consider spaying female dogs. For cats, a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet is recommended, as is regular exercise, though establishing a daily exercise routine for cats is challenging.
Pet owners must also watch for the signs of an insulin overdose, which include weakness, tremors or seizures, and loss of appetite. Owners should contact their veterinarian or an emergency clinic immediately if they notice these signs and consult a medical expert about what should be done to help the pet while it is waiting to be examined. Other long-term complications pets should be monitored for include cataracts, hind leg weakness due to low blood potassium, high blood pressure, and lower urinary tract infections, the AVMA says.
With Thanksgiving and Christmas approaching, the AVMA has issued several tips for keeping holiday foods away from pets. Fatty foods are hard for animals to digest, and poultry bones can damage their digestive tract. And letting them nibble on sweet holiday treats? Forget about it. Sweets contain ingredients that are poisonous to pets. Pet owners should keep feasts and desserts, and yeast dough, on tables beyond their pet’s reach and put trash bags where pets can’t find and rummage through them. Even a small amount of turkey or turkey skin can cause pancreatitis in pets. Most foods that are OK for people, including raisins, onions and grapes, are poisonous to pets, the AVMA says. Pet owners should also use caution when displaying decorative flowers and plants, as some can be toxic to pets.
More information about pet diabetes and holiday pet safety can be found at www.avma.org.
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