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Diabetes

It's been estimated that about 16 million North Americans have diabetes. That statistic, however, doesn't tell the whole story -- it fails to include some of our most important residents with the disease, our beloved dogs and cats.

Diabetes mellitus, or "sugar" diabetes, is a common disorder in cats and dogs, caused by the inability of the hormone insulin to properly balance blood sugar (glucose) levels. Glucose is processed by the body into energy. After food is digested, glucose enters the blood stream -- in a healthy body, insulin is then secreted signaling the cells to begin the process of converting the sugars into useable energy. As more food is consumed, more insulin is secreted, and the needed glucose is consumed. The pancreas secretes small amounts of insulin -- just enough to ensure blood glucose levels don't rise too high (hyperglycemia) or fall dangerously low (hypoglycemia).

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin, and type 2 when the body's cells don't respond well to insulin. Both result in high blood sugar levels because the body is unable to process the available glucose. In the early stages, diabetics may gain weight as appetites increase and their insulin levels rise and fall. However, in spite of maintaining a good appetite, diabetics ultimately lose weight since the body isn't able to process sugars into energy. Essentially, diabetics begin to starve to death.

Excessive urination is a classic sign of diabetes in pets. Diabetic pets that develop hyperglycemia (high blood sugar levels) will begin passing the excess sugar into their urine (glucosuria). As glucose builds in the urine, the body responds by trying to flush the excess from the kidneys through urination. The condition of excess urination (polyuria or PU), accompanied by excessive thirst (polydipsia, or PD), are classic signs of diabetes in pets. As your pet's diabetes is regulated, the PU/PD will become controlled as well.

Although affecting dogs and cats of any breed, sex, or age, diabetes mellitus most often occurs in older, obese individuals; males are more commonly afflicted than females. Diet, genetics, obesity, pancreatic disease, hormonal imbalances, and certain medications are all possible factors in the development of diabetes.

Signs of Diabetes Mellitus
Polyuria, polydipsia, increased appetite, weight loss, and lethargy are hallmark signs of diabetes in pets. In the earlier stages of the disease, pets remain active and alert with few other signs of disease. However as the disease progresses concurrent conditions often appear, such as poor haircoat, liver disease, and secondary bacterial infections become more common.

Diagnosis and Treatment
Your veterinarian can determine if your pet is diabetic by checking blood, urine, and clinical signs. Diabetes is not a death sentence. It is a treatable disorder. Many pet owners are able to control their dog or cat's condition for years, and the animals lead normal, happy lives. The treatment generally entails giving insulin injections once or twice a day, though a small number may be controlled through diet and oral medication.

People are often initially reluctant to give injections to their pets, but it isn't really that distressing. Insulin needles are very small, and pets usually do not react at all to getting the shots. When one begins to treat a diabetic pet, their veterinarian will go over all the procedures, including feeding instructions and symptoms of too much or too little insulin and what to do in these cases. The veterinarian will also set up a schedule of regular recheck visits to gauge how the therapy is working and to adjust the insulin dose. A diabetic pet's need for insulin may fluctuate up and down requiring a change in the insulin dose. Some pets' needs for insulin will actually cease as the pancreas resumes the secretion of adequate insulin. This reprieve is commonly referred to as a "honeymoon".

Insulin
Adequate control of most diabetic pets requires long-acting insulin injections to be given once or twice daily. Each animal responds differently to insulin, so the proper choice of insulin type, dose, and frequency of administration needs to be individually determined. Your vet will likely perform a glucose curve to determine the best regimen. The dog or cat will be hospitalized, given insulin, and then the blood glucose levels will be periodically tested throughout the day. Cats tend to be difficult to maintain on the same regimen for long periods of time, and increases or decreases may need to be made in drug dosages.

Diet and Diabetes
The dog and cat are carnivores. Although the cat is an "obligate carnivore" the physiology and anatomy of both the dog and cat are suited to eating a high protein, meat-based diet. As it turns out, the carnivore’s natural diet also protects from developing diabetes.

Since the invention of heat-processed pet diets, there have been many changes to the type and amount of food that our pets consume. Their diet has changed from one based on protein to one based on carbohydrate. This dietary change affects the sugar levels in their blood. When they eat a high protein diet, the sugar levels in their blood do not rise significantly after a meal. But when carbohydrates are regularly fed, the blood sugar levels in the blood increase. A low-carbohydrate, high protein, raw diet has been associated with remission (disappearance of symptoms) of diabetes in dogs and cats.

Once you've made the decision to be a diabetic pet's caregiver, focus on one thing at a time -- follow your vet's advice and get the basics straight. A diabetic pet may live many healthy years with owners who are willing to put forth the effort of monitoring the animal's condition daily. A pet's wellness is broadcast by a constellation of behaviors, and the only one who knows him well enough to get the message early is you, who lives with him and cares enough to observe closely and thoughtfully. If you are willing to work closely with your veterinarian, you and your pet can have many happy years ahead.

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