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Diabetes in cats, dogs, and even birds is not uncommon, and as in humans, it can be controlled once it is diagnosed. The basic rule is that any animal with a pancreas has the potential for contracting the disease, and that includes most household pets. Common symptoms to look for are very similar to those found in humans: increased thirst, urination, and weight loss.
To find out more about diabetes in pets, DIABETES HEALTH spoke with Dr. Edward Feldman and Dr. Richard Nelson, the top animal endocrinologists at the University of California, Davis. Both Dr. Feldman and Dr. Nelson work together and are extremely active in the study of diabetes in animals.
DIABETES HEALTH: How common is diabetes in pets?
Dr. Nelson: Diabetes is very common in dogs and cats. Most incidence figures would put it somewhere between 2 and 5 per thousand patients. You'll see diabetes very rarely in a horse or a cow, but for those animals, they're usually put [to sleep] because to treat a horse or a cow with insulin is obviously not very cost effective.
DI: Do dogs and cats get two types of diabetes like people do?
Dr. Nelson: Yes, we see both types. The majority of dogs [with diabetes]-and we're talking greater than 90%-mimic insulin-dependent diabetes. For the cat we see both forms: Type I and Type 2, or insulin-dependent and non-insulin dependent.
DI: How do you treat diabetes in pets?
Dr. Nelson: In dogs we use insulin, just like what's used in people. In fact we use human insulin in dogs and cats. In cats we also use insulin, but the difference between dogs and cats is that some cats we can treat with oral medications that pretty much are ineffective in dogs.
DI: Is their treatment expensive?
Dr. Feldman: As you know, insulin and insulin syringes are not terribly expensive. We tell most owners that they're going to spend somewhere around 15 to 30 cents a day to treat their animal, that's probably in the ballpark.
Owners are taught how to administer insulin, how to use syringes, and one or two injections a day are the most common modes of diabetes management for veterinarians and owners of pets.
DI: Do owners need to check their pet's blood glucose levels regularly?
Dr. Nelson: It's a little bit different than in people. In people you do a lot of home monitoring of blood sugars. In cats and dogs we rely very heavily on client's perception of the well-being of their animal: is the animal drinking a lot of water, urinating a lot, losing weight? [These are] some of the common clinical signs.
What we do is measure blood sugars in the hospital. Our clients will drop their diabetic patient off, depending on how well regulated they are, and we'll do multiple blood sugars through the day and try to get a feel for whether or not we need to make any changes. But we don't have the owners monitor blood sugars at home.
DI: Are urine sugars ever checked by owners?
Dr. Nelson: Urine sugars are real controversial. We used to be real big on pushing measurement of urine sugars, and the belief was you could look at a urine sugar in the early morning and you could adjust insulin dosages daily based on how much sugar was being spilled in the urine.
We now recognize that [measuring urine sugars] is inappropriate because in almost all diabetic dogs and cats, the insulin injection is given the previous day. It does not last 24 hours. Some insulin injections in animals will only last 6 or 7 hours, so they are always going to be spilling sugar in the morning, and that can create some problems in terms of complications of insulin therapy.
We've stopped that, and if we do any measurement of urine sugars at all now, it's primarily in the afternoon or early evening, and we're trying to document negative spillage.
DI: Isn't it difficult for pet owners to collect urine if they have to?
Dr. Feldman: Dogs are very easy to collect. They're a little bit bigger. In cats, what we usually do is replace cat litter with a non-absorbable material, such as aquarium gravel, and when the cat urinates, the urine is right there to be measured.
DI: What causes diabetes in pets?
Dr. Nelson: When you look at the underlying cause in dogs, there's evidence that suggests that [there are many factors], just like in people, but the immune system seems to play or may play an important role in its development.
The most common pathology in the islets in the cat is amyloid, very similar to the amyloid that's deposited in the islets in people with Type 2 diabetes. When we look at the underlying cause, the immune mediated phenomenon in dogs is very similar to what we see in people [with Type I diabetes], and the amyloid deposition in cats is very similar to what's seen in Type 2 diabetes in people. So the cat's a model for Type 2 diabetes and the dog's a model for Type I.
DI: Does changing a pet's diet affect its diabetes control?
Dr. Feldman: I don't think we're going to run into a situations where we can change a diabetic dog or cats diet and eliminate the need for insulin. But we might have an animal that's much easier to control, that's much healthier, much happier, and requires less insulin.
DI: What kind of diet is best for a diabetic pet?
Dr. Nelson: We usually recommend high fiber and high carbohydrate in a dog. A cat has higher protein requirements, so there we can't go quite as high in the carbohydrate level, but try to stay high fiber.
DI: What kinds of complications can a pet develop from its diabetes?
Dr. Feldman: I think the most common complications would be that these are animals prone to similar problems people get, which would be infection. Dogs and cats are animals that do have a predisposition to pancreatitis.
I think the long-term complications that are extremely common and devastating in humans, are not common in dogs and cats because I don't think they live long enough. So the kidney problems, the vascular problems, the neuropathies...those kinds of things simply are not recognized clinically in dogs or cats. But dogs definitely develop cataracts.
Dr. Nelson: In cats, interestingly enough, they do not develop cataracts from diabetes, so we don't have blindness as a problem. In cats the biggest problems are maintaining body weight, and they get a peripheral neuropathy, a problem with their nerves that results in a drunken gate, weakness in the rear legs, and an inability to jump up to levels that they used to be able to jump to.
DI: Is it common for pet owners to have their animals put to sleep in order to avoid the commitment of having to deal with their pet's diabetes?
Dr. Feldman: As long as an owner feels that their pet is comfortable and happy, and a reasonable pet, owners will stay with them. But if the owner perceives that their animal is suffering and not happy, then many times they're going to choose to have their animal put to sleep. I really can't disagree with that thought process, but we are reasonably successful at getting very good control [of the diabetes].