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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Canine and Feline Diabetes: Are Caretakers and Pet Foods at Fault?

Diabetes is a life altering disease for cats, dogs, and the people who take on the daily insulin administering and financial backing roles.


There are two types of diabetes affecting our companion animals: mellitus and insipidus. Mellitus is the more common form and includes type I and II.


Diabetes insipidus (DI) is uncommon; it results from a deficiency in or lack of kidney sensitivity to arganine vasopressin (Antidiuretic Hormone, or ADH), a hormone produced by the pituitary gland which promotes the kidneys’ retention of water. My focus is on mellitus types I and II, but read more about DI in Water Diabetes in Dogs.


Types I and II mellitus arise for differing reasons in dogs and cats, but both involve an overall deficiency in insulin production. Insulin is a hormone that moves glucose from blood into tissue and is secreted by pancreatic islet cells.


Insufficient insulin levels cause hyperglycemia (elevated blood sugar) and glucosuria (presence of glucose in the urine), both of which are detectable via diagnostic testing and cause notable clinical signs, including:

  • Excessive water consumption (toilets, buckets, and stray puddles of water become enticing)
  • Increased urination (volume and frequency, so reconsider your plan for new rugs)
  • Ravenous appetite (which can lead to consumption of inappropriate objects and substances...yuck)
  • Weight loss (despite increased appetite, which sounds like a Beverly Hills housewife’s dream)


Glucose deprived tissues prompt the body to inefficiently metabolize protein, stored carbohydrates, and fat. Protein and carbohydrate breakdown produces glucose, while fat metabolism releases toxic ketones. This process, akin to starvation (or the once commercially touted Atkins diet), causes metabolic chaos. Dr. Siobhan O’Neill, an internal medicine specialist from Advanced Critical Care (ACC), states that "poor glycemic control can result in weight loss and the development of diabetic ketoacidosis, a condition requiring hospitalization for the management of life-threatening electrolyte alterations and dehydration."


Type I mellitus is the typical canine variety resulting from pancreatic damage associated with chronic inflammation of the digestive tract (Inflammatory Bowel Disease, etc) and pancreas (pancreatitis), infection, and toxin ingestion. When enough islet cells are damaged, insulin is insufficiently produced, blood glucose levels rise, and the diabetic process ensues.


Type II diabetes is more commonly seen in cats and results from the pancreas’s inability to make enough insulin to support a body burdened by excess weight. At fault are cat owners who permit overfeeding, which leads to our feline friends suffering the ill effects of obesity, including diabetes (see Pet Obesity: Health Implications, Recognition, and Weight Management).


Before you decide to "top off" your pet’s scoop of food or skip a much needed hike, consider the economic implications associated with diabetic pet health care. Can you afford the projected ongoing medical expensed incurred by a diabetic pet? According to VPI Pet Insurance claims data, diabetes related veterinary expenses totaled more than $1.5 million in 2007, with an average invoice of $200 per visit.


What are my top holistic tips to prevent our dogs from developing a type I diabetes? Focus on maintaining an optimally functioning digestive tract, which helps keep the endocrine (pancreas, kidneys, liver, etc), immune, and other body systems healthy.


Dr. Amanda Blackburn (another ACC internist) notes that "remission of insulin dependence in dogs after an appropriate diagnosis of diabetes is extremely rare." Avoiding processed foods and treats containing byproducts, protein and carbohydrate meals, preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors can help to relieve your potential lifelong responsibility to inject your dog with insulin.


Cooked, fiber rich, whole food sources can reduce intestinal and pancreatic inflammation, promote healthy gut bacterial levels, and are less likely to include toxins found in pet grade foods. (SHOCKER: The pet food industry makes allowances for plastic and styrofoam, which can disrupt your pet’s normal glandular function.) Additionally, prevent dietary indiscretion by canine proofing your home environment and keeping your dog on a short leash when setting paw outdoors.


A similar principle of prevention applies to type II diabetes in cats. Emphasis must be placed on calorie restriction, as the feline obesity epidemic continually yields new crops of diabetic cats.


Society has been lulled into believing that cats must eat foods having a format grossly different from nature’s intention. Cats are obligate carnivores and should eat primarily meat protein and minimal grain based carbohydrates. Consuming grain rich, processed options (dry or canned) insufficiently satisfies cats’ biological needs. As portion control is inconvenient for people and organically unfamiliar to cats, excessive food will be consumed unless feline caretakers responsibly promote calorie restriction.


Dr. Blackburn gives hope for feline diabetics when he says that "approximately 50 percent of cats can revert to a non-insulin dependent state with dietary alternations, weight management, and short term insulin therapy. Therefore, owners of cats with early signs of glucose intolerance or newly diagnosed diabetes can positively impact their cats’ health with weight loss and dietary alterations, and by avoiding medications such as steroids, which can predispose a cat to diabetes."


Starting today, dog and cat owners should put the utmost effort into preventing their companions from developing diabetes mellitus by feeding appropriate portions, providing pure food sources, averting dietary indiscretion, and engaging in frequent pet-people exercise.


Pictured: A cat that is well on its way to being diabetic.



Dr. Patrick Mahaney



Image: Irina oxilixo Danilova / via Shutterstock

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