By Dr. Becker
Caring for a diabetic pet can be quite complex and time consuming. It involves regular monitoring of blood glucose levels, making necessary dietary adjustments, giving insulin injections or oral medications, and keeping a careful eye on your pet at all times.
Frequent veterinary visits are the norm for dogs and cats with diabetes, as are the costs associated with checkups, tests, medical procedures, and insulin therapy. And unlike humans with the disease, our pets can’t tell us how they’re feeling or help in their own treatment and recovery.
Preventing Diabetic Emergencies
The key to preventing diabetic emergencies with a pet involves implementing a consistent daily routine and sticking with it.
- Diet. Your dog or cat should be fed two portion-controlled meals each day, at about the same time each day, and each meal should contain about the same number of calories to help stabilize blood sugar levels.
What you feed your diabetic pet is as important as when and how much you feed him. Ideally, he should be eating a balanced, species-appropriate raw diet. Commercial potato or grain-based pet foods are not appropriate nutrition for any dog or cat, but especially those with diabetes. Dogs and cats have no biological requirement for grains or most other carbs, and diabetic pets certainly don’t need the sugar or other additives and preservatives that are also in most processed pet foods. Carbohydrates break down into sugar, and sugar stresses the pancreas, forcing it to produce more insulin to balance the increase in blood sugar.
With that said, what’s most important is to insure your pet is well nourished. Many middle-aged and older pets accustomed to eating processed pet food will refuse a healthier diet. If this is the case with your pet and she’s not overweight, continue to feed her what she’s willing to eat, and try to increase moisture content and protein quality by mixing as much grain-free canned or fresh food as she will tolerate.
- Exercise. Like all pets, your diabetic dog or cat needs regular heart-thumping, muscle-toning exercise. I recommend 20 to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise several times a week.
- Insulin therapy. Your pet’s insulin, whether it’s injectable or taken by mouth, should be given at the same time(s) each day. A good way to remember to medicate your pet on a regular schedule is to do it at mealtime. It’s best to have only one person in your household give insulin to avoid accidental double dosing. A daily log of the time and amount of food and insulin given is also a good idea.
You’ll also want to do daily at-home monitoring of your pet’s urine and/or blood glucose levels, and that information can be recorded in the log as well.
- Beneficial supplements. A few supplements that can help with glucose metabolism and control include R-lipoic acid (for dogs), cinnamon, L-carnitine, carnosine, green tea extract, fenugreek seed and banaba leaf. These supplements are potent blood sugar modulators that can dramatically reduce your pet’s insulin requirements. They should only be prescribed by your holistic vet, who will carefully monitor your pet’s glucose levels and insulin amounts. Additions such as ubiquinol, essential fatty acids (krill oil), vitamin E, C and B complex and bilberry have been shown to benefit most diabetic patients as well.
- Avoiding unnecessary vaccinations. There is a connection between autoimmune disorders and type II diabetes, especially in dogs. If your pet’s immune system attacks his pancreas, he can develop diabetes. One of the ways an animal’s immune system is over-stimulated is through vaccinations, especially repetitive yearly vaccinations.
I recommend you find a holistic or integrative veterinarian and ask for antibody titers. Titers are tests that measure your pet’s functional antibody response to previous immunizations. The results of these tests will tell you whether re-vaccination is necessary, and for which specific diseases.
Handling a Diabetic Emergency: Hypoglycemia
Even the most conscientious owner can encounter a health emergency with a diabetic pet. The most common problem is low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia.
Hypoglycemia in a diabetic pet is usually the result of an inadvertent overdose of insulin. Other causes for the condition include lack of appetite (the pet isn’t eating well), skipping meals, throwing up after eating, a change in the type or amount of food, or too-vigorous exercise.
A change in the body’s need for insulin can also precipitate a hypoglycemic event, and is most often seen in cats whose disease goes into remission as a result of appropriate dietary changes and insulin therapy. This is one reason you want to monitor your pet’s blood or urine glucose levels daily. If your kitty goes into diabetic remission, continuing insulin injections can result in hypoglycemia.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia can come on suddenly and include lethargy or restlessness, anxiety or other behavioral changes, muscle weakness or twitching, seizures, coma, and death.
If your dog or cat is showing signs of hypoglycemia, first try feeding him if he is able to eat. If he isn’t alert, hand-feed honey (make sure to keep some on hand at all times; you can also use corn syrup in a pinch) until he is able to eat his regular food, and feed him a meal.
If your pet is unconscious, try rubbing a tablespoon of honey on his gums. If he regains consciousness, feed him and then take him to your vet or an emergency animal hospital for further observation and treatment, if necessary. If your pet remains unconscious despite administering honey, you need to get him to an emergency clinic immediately.
Please note: Do not give your pet another dose of insulin after a hypoglycemic event until you have spoken with your veterinarian.
Signs of a Possible Impending Diabetic Emergency
Whereas hypoglycemia is a true diabetic emergency, there are other signs owners of diabetic pets should watch for that may warn of an approaching health crisis. These include ketones in the urine that may put your pet at risk for diabetic ketoacidosis; straining to urinate, bloody urine or urinating outside the litter box, indicating a potential urinary tract infection; vomiting or diarrhea; a complete loss of appetite or reduced appetite for several days.
If your dog or cat is diabetic, it’s important to work closely with your veterinarian to successfully manage your pet’s disease. Pets with controlled diabetes should see the vet every three to four months, and you should always contact your vet if you notice changes in your companion’s behavior or health.
You should also know the location and phone number of a nearby emergency animal clinic for after-hours emergencies or in the event your regular vet is unavailable.