There are two types of diabetes which occur in both humans and our domestic pets. Diabetes insipidus (water diabetes) is relatively rare. Diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes) is common, and is the disease that most people are referring to when they simply say “diabetes”.
Diabetes occurs very commonly in dogs; although it is somewhat less common in cats, we nevertheless diagnose feline diabetes quite frequently.
Diabetes is a failure of the pancreas gland to produce enough insulin to regulate the body’s blood sugar levels. The food which is eaten is converted into simple sugars, but without insulin the sugar is unable to be utilised by the body’s cells. Consequently blood sugar levels become very high, but the cells are essentially being starved of the energy needed for metabolism. The patient loses weight while remaining very hungry. The glucose is passed out of the body in the urine, dragging water with it: consequently the patient urinates more than normal, and drinks large volumes in order to not become dehydrated.
Most often the reason an owner will bring their pet to us is that the animal’s water consumption has increased dramatically. Less frequently, we may see dogs or cats who have had the condition for a long period of time; in this scenario life-threatening toxins can build up in the body and the patient presents in a state of severe illness or collapse.
We may suspect diabetes on the basis of the development of the typical signs (increased water consumption, weight loss, increased urination and increased appetite). The diagnosis is confirmed with blood and urine tests.
Treatment of diabetes in pets is very similar to that in humans. The mainstay of treatment is insulin injections, administered by the owner at home, usually twice daily. When first faced with this prospect, many owners are concerned about their ability to administer injections, and the likelihood of their pet tolerating them. It is our experience that owners become expert in administering the insulin in no time at all, and the twice daily jabs just become a part of the daily routine for both pet and owner. As well as insulin injections, it is usually the case that we will regulate the pet’s food intake, just as would be the case with a human diabetic. Oral medications to regulate blood glucose have much less of a role in veterinary medicine than in human medicine, but occasionally may be used.
When administering insulin injections, there is a risk of the animal’s blood glucose going too low if too high a dose of insulin is being administered. This is a potentially life-threatening complication, and to avoid any serious consequences we normally advise owners to have on hand some honey, which can easily be spread inside the animal’s mouth and which provides a rapidly metabolised source of glucose to get the patient over the critical period.
Monitoring of a diabetic patient is important, just as it is for human diabetics. When the diagnosis is first made, we normally have to see the patient fairly frequently in order to establish the correct dose of insulin for that individual. Then, once the patient is stable on the injections, we normally like to check the blood glucose levels, and sometimes a chemical called fructosamine, every 3 to 6 months to establish that the situation is remaining stable.
A hundred years ago a diagnosis of diabetes was a death sentence, not only for animals but for humans as well. Insulin treatment and good management on the part of the owner means that a dog or cat with this disease is now able to live a long and happy life, with an excellent quality of life.