Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
Diabetes mellitus is an endocrine disorder that leads to high levels of glucose (a type of sugar) in the blood. Diabetes is common in dogs and cats. November is Pet Diabetes Month, so this article is a brief overview of this complex disorder.
Carbohydrates in the diet are converted to glucose in the body. The hormone insulin helps move glucose from the bloodstream into cells, where glucose is a source of energy. Diabetes mellitus occurs either when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or when the body can’t use insulin properly.
Insulin is made in the pancreas. Immune-mediated destruction of pancreatic cells or pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas) can reduce insulin production. Dogs and cats can also develop insulin resistance, in which the pancreas makes insulin but the body doesn’t respond normally to it. This type of diabetes, similar to type 2 diabetes in people, is the most common type in cats.
Obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes in dogs and cats. Obese cats are up to 4 times as likely as cats of ideal weight to develop diabetes. Other diseases, like hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing disease) and hypothyroidism in dogs, acromegaly in cats, dental disease, and kidney disease, are also associated with diabetes. Some medications, especially glucocorticoids like prednisone, increase the risk for diabetes. Breeds that are more prone than others to diabetes include beagles, Australian terriers, Samoyeds, keeshonds, and Burmese cats.
In animals with a high blood glucose level, excess glucose is excreted in the urine. Glucose in the urine acts as a diuretic, increasing urine volume. Animals with diabetes often develop urinary tract infections because of the sugar in the urine. When cells can’t use glucose properly for fuel, the body begins to break down fat and muscle. These changes in metabolism affect many organ systems. Uncontrolled diabetes can also lead to diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening complication.
These are some of the symptoms of diabetes:
Diabetes is diagnosed by blood and urine tests showing high glucose levels that persist on repeat testing. In cats, stress can increase the blood glucose level, so measurement of serum fructosamine (a protein that reflects average blood glucose levels over the previous week or so) can help with diagnosis. Full bloodwork, urinalysis, and urine culture are done to identify other conditions that might accompany or result from diabetes and complicate treatment.
Dogs and cats with diabetes are treated with insulin injections and diet modification. Oral medications for diabetes don’t work for dogs and aren’t very effective in cats, so all dogs and almost all cats with diabetes require insulin injections. The type and dose of insulin and the diet chosen depend on the individual patient and can change over time.
Other disorders can affect the body’s response to insulin and must also be identified and treated. Sick patients with ketoacidosis need intensive treatment in the hospital.
Treating diabetes requires significant pet owner commitment and regular monitoring. The injections must be given on a consistent schedule, and owners need to monitor their pet’s appetite and watch for signs of hypoglycemia (low blood glucose): sleepiness, weakness, stumbling, tremors, and seizures. In dogs and cats, blood glucose is monitored from time to time with a glucose curve, a series of glucose measurements over the course of a day, either at home or at the veterinary clinic. Insulin dose adjustments are generally based on glucose curve results, not on single spot checks of blood glucose.
In dogs, diabetes almost always requires lifelong insulin therapy. Some cats treated for diabetes undergo remission and no longer need insulin, especially if their blood glucose levels can be brought under control with insulin and diet early in the course of disease. The prognosis is generally good for dogs and cats with well-controlled diabetes.
1. Behrend E, Holford A, Lathan P, Rucinsky R, Schulman R. 2018 AAHA diabetes management guidelines for dogs and cats. American Animal Hospital Association. 2018. Accessed November 20, 2020. https://www.aaha.org/globalassets/02-guidelines/diabetes/diabetes-guidelines_final.pdf
2. Sparkes AH, Cannon M, Church D, et al; ISFM. ISFM consensus guidelines on the practical management of diabetes mellitus in cats. J Feline Med Surg. 2015;17(3):235-250. doi:10.1177/1098612X15571880
Photo by Mustang Joe
Laurie Anne Walden, DVM
The contents of this blog are for information only and should not substitute for advice from a veterinarian who has examined the animal. All blog content is copyrighted by Mallard Creek Animal Hospital and may not be copied, reproduced, transmitted, or distributed without permission.