Diabetes in Dogs and Cats

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We are all aware of the dangers of diabetes in humans, but what about companion animals? Although not as common in dogs and cats as in humans, diabetes is still a major health concern among responsible pet parents. Affecting about 1 in 200 pets, diabetes is the most frequently reported endocrine issue in companion animals.

Pet parents must understand that the diabetes is not a temporary issue. It is life threatening condition that requires lifelong commitment to insulin injections and feeding and dietary strategies.

The Diabetes in a Nutshell

Definition

Diabetes is a condition that occurs when the body is either unable to produce or unable to adequately utilize the hormone insulin. The purpose of insulin is to help regulate the blood sugar level. Simply put, the insulin keeps the blood sugar levels from either skyrocketing too high or dropping too low.

Types

There are two types of diabetes:

  • Diabetes type I (commonly known as insulin-deficient diabetes) – it occurs when the pancreas cannot produce enough insulin. Type I diabetes is more common among dogs. Type I diabetes is permanent and its effects are irreversible.
  • Diabetes type II (commonly known as insulin-resistant diabetes) – it occurs when the pancreas produces insulin but the body cells cannot recognize and utilize the produced insulin. Type II diabetes is more common among cats. However, obese dogs and dogs on corticosteroid drugs can also develop type II diabetes. Type II diabetes is transient and with proper management usually resolves within 1-2 years.

Signs and symptoms

The most commonly observed signs and symptoms associated with diabetes include:

  • Increased urination frequency
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sleepiness
  • Decreased physical activity
  • Eye clouding (in dogs)
  • Coat quality deterioration (in cats).

Managing Diabetes in Pets

The diabetes management has two important compounds:

  • Insulin injections
  • Dietary changes.

Although insulin shots are an inevitable part of treatment plan, today, more and more vets and nutritionists accent the importance of proper nutrition.

Diabetic food

The best approach for managing diabetes is by proper dietary strategy. Diabetic food should consist of a fixed formula with consistent:

  • high levels of high-quality proteins
  • high levels of dietary fiber
  • low levels of carbohydrates
  • low levels of fats.

Ideally, at least 30 to 40% of the calories in the food would come from protein and less than 30% of calories would come from fat and carbohydrates each.

Healthy dietary fiber is an integral part of all diabetic foods. Fiber is the indigestible portion of plant foods and there are 2 types of fiber – soluble and insoluble. Fibers have low caloric density thus contributing in proper and healthy weight reduction. Healthy dietary fibers also promote satiety feeling, thus limiting the voluntary ingestion of food. Additionally, certain fiber, such as CMC (carboxymethylcellulose) slows down the emptying of the stomach, and by doing so, slows the delivery of sugar into the bloodstream.

Tip: When using diabetic food, make sure your dog/cat has plenty of fresh water at its disposal. This is because fibers bind with water and if not drinking enough your dog/cat may become constipated.

When it comes to diabetic food the carbohydrate content itself does not matter as much as its glycemic index. The glycemic index measures the effects of the food’s carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Foods with low glycemic indexes are digested slowly thus slowing down the delivery of sugar into the bloodstream. Typical examples of carbohydrates with low glycemic indexes include ancestral cereals such as oats, spelt and barley. At the opposite side of the scale, rice which has high glycemic index, is digested quickly and results with blood sugar peak and sudden high demand for insulin.

Tip: Since any change in carbohydrates affects the amount of insulin needed, try to feed the same amount of the same type of food at the same time each day, ideally in two meals, 12 hours apart.

Specially formulated diabetic foods induce an optimal and gradual post-prandial glycemic response that modulates the insulin release. Simply stated, they help keep the blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible. Keeping the blood sugar levels normal makes it less likely, your dog/cat will get diabetes related complications such as vision clouding (cataract) and urinary tract infections.

Note: Putting your diabetic dog’s/cat’s blood sugar levels under control takes time. Do not get discouraged if the blood sugar levels are not optimal at your first checkup at the vet.

How to improve the taste of diabetic food?

Even the best diabetic food can be useless if your dog/cat does not like how it tastes. Fortunately you can improve the diabetic food’s taste and make it more tempting by adding:

  • 1 tablespoon of low-carb canned food in the regular diabetic food
  • few small pieces of shredded chicken in the regular diabetic food
  • 2-3 tablespoons of chicken broth (with low sodium content) in the regular diabetic food.

Tip: Injecting insulin on an empty stomach is forbidden because it can make your dog/cat sick. 

What to avoid?

Soft, semi-moist and wet foods must be avoided, because they are very high in sugar and stimulate the greatest blood sugar increase after eating.

Can I give my diabetic dog/cat treats?

As funny and mischievous it gets, on occasions your pet is a good boy/girl. And on those occasions he/she deserves a reward. Do not deprive your dog/cat of treats. As long as the treat has low glycemic index and low caloric density it is safe for your diabetic fur baby.

Tip: Replace commercial treats with diabetic friendly whole food treats, such as carrots, chunks of melon, apples (without peel and seeds), broccoli and blueberries.

Seeking professional opinion

No matter how many insightful blogs you have read and how many well-educated salespersons at local pet stores you have talked to, always go a step further and seek professional opinion. Talk to your trusted vet or dog/cat nutritionist. Every diabetic patient needs tailored approach and modified dietary strategy. A true professional will take into consideration your baby’s:

  • current state of health
  • body weight
  • level of physical activity.

Conclusion

Diabetes in dogs/cats is chronic and serious, but effectively manageable health condition. The key to controlling and treating diabetes is by regulating the blood sugar levels. Luckily canine/feline nutrition has come a long way in recent years and a properly controlled diet can keep the blood sugar levels within acceptable limits.                                                                    All in all, although scary, having your dog/cat diagnosed with diabetes, is not the end of the world. With proper care and devotion, your furry baby can live a long and healthy life.