Over 1.4 million pets in the U.S. suffer from diabetes mellitus, a condition in which the blood sugar (glucose) level is too high.
One in every 500 dogs and one in 200 cats develops diabetes. Certain breeds are predisposed to the condition, for example Samoyeds, Australian Terriers, Schnauzers, Toy Poodles and Burmese cats.
However, regardless of breed, the incidence of diabetes in companion animals is rising at an alarming rate, resulting in an unprecedented number of sick pets.
What Exactly Is Diabetes?
The condition of diabetes results from a shortage or misuse of insulin in your pet’s body.
The problem can be caused by either a reduced production of insulin (commonly known in humans as juvenile or Type I diabetes), or because your dog’s or cat’s body isn’t using insulin efficiently (Type II diabetes) due to insulin resistance.
Insulin is an anabolic hormone whose job it is to move not just sugar, but also amino acids, electrolytes and fatty acids into the cells of your pet’s body. A lack of insulin will cause these vital substances to remain outside the cells. This causes the cells to starve while surrounded by the very nutrients they need to survive.
If there is sufficient insulin being produced in your pet’s body, but the cells don’t use the nutrients they receive properly, the result is the same – cells starved for nutrients.
Juvenile diabetes is rare in pets. Most of the time, diabetes in companion animals is life-style induced. I’ll discuss this in more detail in part 2 of this series.
Adult onset diabetes typically shows itself when your pet reaches midlife, after she has encountered enough lifestyle obstacles to induce either decreased production of insulin or a diminished ability to use it efficiently.
Symptoms of Diabetes in Your Dog or Cat
The symptoms of diabetes can develop very gradually, and include the following:
- Increased urination. The first thing that often happens is blood sugar levels become so high outside the cells of your pet’s body that it spills into the urine, increasing urine production. You might notice your dog or cat is urinating more frequently or is having accidents in the house.
- Increased thirst. Increased urination will in turn cause an increase in thirst, so you might also notice your pet emptying his water dish more often.
Increased thirst and urination are hallmarks of a diabetic condition, so those are things you’ll want to watch closely for, especially as your pet ages. Unfortunately, increased thirst and urine output are also signs of other serious health problems, so regardless of the age or condition of your dog or cat, you should make an appointment with your veterinarian if you notice these symptoms.
- Increased appetite. Another symptom you might notice is increased appetite. Your pet will be hungrier because the amino acids needed inside the cells aren’t getting there, or aren’t being used appropriately.
- Weight loss. When the cells of your pet’s body are being starved of essential nutrients, the result is often an increase in appetite. But because the energy from food is not being used efficiently by the body’s cells, your pet can lose weight even though he’s taking in more calories.
- Tiredness and lack of energy. Other symptoms you might notice in your dog or cat are lethargy and lack of energy. When the cells of your pet’s body are deprived of blood sugar, he will often exhibit a general lack of desire to run, take a walk with you, or engage in play. Lack of activity and an increased need for sleep are typical in animals suffering from Type II diabetes.
- Vision problems. Another symptom of diabetes in companion animals is blindness, which is seen primarily in dogs, but cats can also develop blindness as a result of diabetic cataracts.
- Weakness in rear limbs (cats only). This symptom is unique to kitties with diabetes. It’s called the plantigrade stance. Instead of walking high up on the pads of his feet, which is how cats normally walk, a cat with plantigrade stance will drop his hind quarters low and actually walk on his back ankles. This is a very obvious and unnatural way for a cat to walk, so it’s something you’ll notice immediately. Fortunately, this symptom can be reversed once your kitty’s diabetes is under control.
- Urinary tract infections. It’s not at all uncommon for diabetic dogs and cats to acquire secondary urinary tract infections. This happens because the more sugar there is in the urine, the greater the likelihood that bacteria will grow in your pet’s bladder.
- Kidney failure. Kidney failure, especially in cats, is also a common secondary symptom of diabetes. Often the first diagnosis for a diabetic kitty is chronic renal insufficiency or acute kidney problems. The sugar that is meant to be retained in your pet’s bloodstream but spills over into the urine is very damaging to the kidneys.
Your pet’s kidneys become overburdened and the nephrons – the filters inside the kidneys – can’t handle the extra work of filtering sugar. The result is kidney dysfunction, which is diagnosed by your veterinarian either through blood work or urinalysis.
If your pet’s urine has what is known as low specific gravity, which means the kidneys are over-diluting urine, it is a potential symptom of diabetes. And of course if a urinalysis turns up sugar in the urine, diabetes is even more suspect.
So if your pet has decreased specific gravity (very diluted) urine, plus sugar in the urine along with a urinary tract infection or kidney failure, your veterinarian can be confident the diagnosis is diabetes mellitus.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series in which I’ll discuss lifestyle-induced diabetes (Type II diabetes) and how to prevent your beloved pet from developing this very serious disease.