Do You Know How to Spot Diabetes in Dogs and Cats?
Written by Katie Dahlhausen, PhD
Published on November 26, 2019, Updated on November 26, 2020
We’re bringing awareness to pet diabetes a disease that affects roughly one out of every 230 cats and one out of every 310 dogs (according to published studies). Many pet parents are surprised to learn that cats and dogs can get diabetes, which is similar to diabetes in humans. There are many great resources available to you to learn about diabetes in pets, and this article is a great place to start.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes mellitus, or diabetes for short, is a disease where the body’s cells are not getting enough glucose, a sugar that all cells use for energy to function. There are two kinds of diabetes, both related to insulin (the molecule that helps deliver glucose to the body’s cells). The first is where the body produces little to no insulin, known as insulin-dependent and it’s most common in dogs (defined as Type 1 in humans). The second is where the body can’t use insulin correctly, known as insulin-resistant and it’s most common in cats (defined as Type 2 in humans).
How Do Dogs and Cats Get Diabetes?
There isn’t one thing that causes diabetes, but many factors can influence the risk of getting the disease. Genetic predisposition, pregnancy, and age can increase an animal’s diabetes risk, which can occur at any point in a pet’s life.
We spoke with Dr. Chen Gilor, DVM, DACVIM, PhD, a veterinary endocrinologist and Associate Professor at the University of Florida about other risk factors. “We know that being overweight and physically inactive are risk factors for diabetes mellitus,” says Dr. Chen, “but we don’t actually have a study showing that intervention of weight loss or increased activity would help delay or prevent feline diabetes mellitus”.
The same advice applies for dogs too, as obesity is the most significant risk factor to the disease. A 2018 study found that 60% of cats and 56% of dogs in the United States were overweight or obese, an upward trend that is also seen is diabetes prevalence. There is no cure for diabetes, but pets with diabetes can live long, normal lives if the disease is caught early and managed properly.
What Are the Symptoms?
If you notice any sudden changes to your pet’s behavior, beyond normal seasonal changes, it may be a sign to make an appointment with your veterinarian. Recognizing early symptoms of diabetes are very important because the earlier the disease is diagnosed, the better the chances are that your cat or dog lives a longer and healthier life. Below are common signs of diabetes seen in both cats and dogs, as well as cat-specific symptoms and dog-specific symptoms.
Increased Thirst and Urination.
The body’s natural response to get rid of the excess sugar in the blood is to dilute it with water. To achieve this, chemical signals will tell the body it’s thirsty to bring in more water. The volume and frequency of urination also increases as a response in addition to more water intake. AnimalBiome founder, Holly Ganz, PhD, said that this was the first thing she noticed in her cat, who was later diagnosed with diabetes.
Sudden Change in Appetite
It is common in pets with unmanaged diabetes to have a sudden increase in appetite. This happens because the body's cells are not getting enough energy (glucose) so chemical signals will tell the body it’s hungry in order to get more energy.
Sudden Changes in Weight
Despite having an increased appetite, it is common that pets with unmanaged diabetes will experience weight loss. This is because the body’s cells are not getting enough energy, so the cells start breaking down fat and muscle instead because they can’t get it from food.
Cat-Specific Symptoms of Diabetes
Thinning Hair and/or Increased Shedding
There are many reasons that can cause these changes. However, scientists believe thinning hair or increased shedding is due to a decrease in circulation to the skin and hair follicles, which can cause damage to the nerve cells. This can lead to an increase in shedding and can trigger overgrooming in cats, both of which cause thinning hair.
Weak Hind Legs
Diabetes can cause low blood potassium, high blood pressure, damaged nerves that feed to the hind legs, and/or loss of muscle tissue - all of which can weaken the hind legs in cats.
Dog-Specific Symptoms of Diabetes
Pay attention to an increase in the amount of time sleeping and your dog acting tired when awake. This is a common symptom of diabetes in dogs because the body’s cells are not getting enough energy and tell the body it’s time to rest.
Dogs with diabetes can get cloudy eyes because high glucose levels can cause deposits on the lens of the eye, resulting in cataracts.
Untreated diabetes can be lethal to cats and dogs, so pet parents need to closely manage their pet’s disease. In both insulin-dependent and insulin-resistant diabetes, pet parents need to monitor and manage their cat or dogs blood sugar levels by using a simple test strip.
Your veterinarian will explain the options available to you for your cat or dog’s specific diagnosis. If you cat or dog’s blood sugar levels are too high, insulin injections can lower it to a safe level. Insulin injections are necessary for managing insulin-dependent diabetes, but are only supplemental in insulin-resistant diabetes. This article is a good source for further details about caring for diabetic pets.
While there is no cure for diabetes, it is possible for pets with insulin-resistant diabetes to go into remission, meaning that insulin injections aren’t required anymore. Dr. Gilor notes that remission is possible by keeping a diabetic pet lean and healthy, but that “any cause of increased insulin demand or decreased insulin sensitivity (e.g. inflammatory diseases, stress, obesity) would push them back to [needing] insulin.”
The Importance of Gut Health for Diabetes
Your pet’s gut bacteria play an important role in the prevention and management of diabetes too. Gut bacteria are responsible for breaking down food and converting it into glucose, the sugar that cells use for energy. Scientists have identified many correlations between gut bacteria and diabetes, so making lifestyle choices to take care of pet’s gut health is important for minimizing risk factors for diabetes.
Furthermore, a growing body of scientific research suggests that microbiome manipulation with fecal transplants may help to manage the symptoms of diabetes by reducing inflammation, increasing metabolism, and/or improving insulin sensitivity. Fecal transplants are also a way to reduce gut bacterial imbalances. AnimalBiome offers Gut Restoration Supplements (the equivalent to fecal transplant in a capsule) for cats and dogs that are a convenient and far less invasive approach than fecal transplant procedures. It is important to test your pet’s gut health early in order to identify bacterial imbalances that may lead to many possible health conditions and disease associated with the gut microbiome.
The aim of this article is to raise awareness about diabetes in cats and dogs. While diabetes isn't always preventable, there are things you can do to help your pet such as feeding your dog or cat appropriate food portions for their size, providing daily exercise and enrichment, staying current on pet well-checks with your veterinarian, and promoting a healthy, balanced gut microbiome.
You can help us spread awareness by sharing this article with your fellow pet owners and animal lovers. By sharing it you may even help a pet live a longer and happier life.
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