Starves Your Pet's Cells to Death, No Matter How Well They're Fed

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet diabetes

Story at-a-glance

  • Diabetes rates in cats and especially dogs are rising at an alarming rate in the U.S.
  • Most pets develop lifestyle-related diabetes at midlife or older; causes include obesity, high-carb diets, a sedentary lifestyle and over-vaccination
  • There are eight common symptoms of diabetes every pet parent should be aware of, including a noticeable increase in thirst, urination and appetite
  • It’s important to help prevent diabetes in your pet by offering a healthy lifestyle
  • Once a dog or cat has the disease, it can become extremely difficult and expensive to manage

In recent years, the number of dogs and cats with diabetes has soared. According to Banfield Pet Hospital’s State of Pet Health 2016 Report, from 2006 to 2015, the disease increased a whopping 80 percent in dogs, and 18 percent in kitties.1 Sadly, the number one cause of death in diabetic dogs and cats is not the disease itself, but euthanasia.2 This is because many pet owners find they simply can’t cope with the demands of the disease.

Most Dogs and Cats Develop Lifestyle-Related Diabetes

Diabetes almost always occurs in middle aged or older animals, after they’ve encountered enough lifestyle obstacles to induce either decreased production of insulin or a diminished ability to use it efficiently.

Diabetes in cats typically occurs from inefficient use of insulin, but in dogs, it’s typically a problem with insulin production. That’s why even though dogs develop the disease later in life like cats and humans with Type 2 diabetes, the disease almost always takes the form of Type 1 diabetes in canines.

Insulin is a naturally occurring hormone that moves sugar, amino acids, electrolytes and fatty acids into the cells of the body. A lack of insulin will cause these vital substances to remain outside the cells, starving them. If there’s enough insulin being produced in your pet’s body, but the cells can’t use the nutrients they receive properly, the result is the same — cells starved for nutrients.

3 Primary Causes of Diabetes in Pets

1. Obesity and high-carbohydrate dietsObesity is by far the biggest reason pets develop diabetes. The majority of pets in the U.S. consume a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet, even though dogs and cats have no physiological requirement for grains like corn, wheat, rice, soy, millet or quinoa as sources of energy.

Grain-free kibble has made feeding pets even more confusing and also contributes to the obesity and diabetic epidemics we’re experiencing. These diets are calorie dense and contain high-glycemic potatoes, chickpeas, peas or tapioca, which require a substantial insulin release from the body.

All the carbs (starch) in your pet’s food — which can be as much as 80 percent of the contents — break down into sugar. Excess sugar can result in diabetes.

2. Sedentary lifestyle — Another lifestyle-related reason pets develop diabetes, one that often goes hand-in-hand with poor nutrition, is lack of exercise. Furry family members often lead the same sedentary lifestyle their humans do. It’s not a total lack of movement, it’s just not nearly enough of the kind that’s beneficial for health.

3. Over-vaccination — There is a growing body of research that connects autoimmune disorders to diabetes, especially in dogs. If your pet’s immune system attacks his pancreas, he can develop diabetes. Dogs, in particular, are prone to immune system attacks on the pancreas, or more specifically, the cells that secrete insulin in the pancreas. This situation points to an autoimmune component in the development of diabetes in canines.

Immune-mediated or autoimmune diseases are caused by overstimulation of the immune system. One of the primary ways your pet’s immune system can be overstimulated is through repetitive yearly vaccinations against diseases he’s already immunized against.

8 Symptoms of Diabetes

The symptoms of diabetes can develop very gradually, and include the following:

1. Increased urination and thirst — 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 urination causes 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.

2. 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.

3. 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 cells aren’t using energy from food efficiently, your pet can lose weight even though he’s taking in more calories.

4. 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 play.

5. Vision problems — Another symptom of diabetes in companion animals is blindness, which is seen primarily in dogs, but cats can also lose their eyesight as a result of diabetic cataracts.

6. Weakness in rear limbs — This symptom is unique to cats with diabetes. It’s called the plantigrade stance. Instead of walking high up on the pads of her feet, which is the way cats normally walk, a cat with plantigrade stance will drop her hind quarters low and walk on her back ankles.

This is a very obvious and unnatural way for a kitty to walk, so it’s something you’ll notice immediately. Fortunately, this symptom can be reversed once the diabetes is under control.

7. 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.

8. Kidney failureKidney disease, 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.

How to Help Your Pet Avoid Diabetes

Help your dog or cat stay trim by feeding a portion-controlled, moisture-rich, balanced, species-appropriate diet consisting of a variety of unadulterated protein sources, healthy fats, low starch veggies and fruit in moderation, and specific nutritional supplements as necessary.

Your pet needs regular heart-thumping, muscle-toning, calorie-burning exercise. If your dog or cat is lying around the house all day while you’re at work, her heart rate is not being elevated often or consistently enough to burn calories and achieve good cardiovascular conditioning.

I recommend an absolute minimum of 20 minutes of daily aerobic exercise for your pet. One way to help accomplish this with cats is by replacing food bowls with indoor hunting feeders that encourage kitties to get active and are also an excellent way to control the amount of calories being consumed.

As I mentioned earlier, autoimmune diseases can be the result of overstimulation of the immune system. One of the primary ways your pet’s immune system is overstimulated is through repetitive yearly vaccinations for diseases he is already immunized against.

If your pet had his full set of puppy or kitten shots on schedule, there’s a high likelihood his immunity to those diseases will last a lifetime. Each time a fully immunized pet receives a repetitive set of vaccines, it increases the risk of overstimulating his immune system.

I recommend you find an integrative veterinarian who runs antibody titer tests to measure each animal’s antibody response from previous vaccinations. Titer results will tell you whether re-vaccination is necessary.

Prevention Is Always the Best Cure

Treatment of diabetes in a family pet is complex and time-consuming in the vast majority of cases. It involves regular monitoring of blood glucose levels, ongoing dietary adjustments, insulin given by injection or oral glucose-regulating drugs and keeping a constant, careful eye on your sick pet.

Frequent veterinary visits are a way of life, and the cost of checkups, tests, medical procedures and insulin therapy add up fast. Tragically, this is why euthanasia is the number one cause of death in dogs and cats with the disease. Needless to say, the toll it takes on your pet’s health and quality of life can also be devastating. That’s why I encourage you to take steps to remove any obstacles in the way of a lifetime of good health for your four-legged family member.

Also consider asking your veterinarian to run a test called A1CARE as part of your pet’s routine wellness exam. This test can detect clinical and subclinical/transitional diabetes, as well as give an overall picture of your dog’s or cat’s metabolic health.