Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

U of I logoCollege of Veterinary Medicine

Back to search page.

Diabetes: A Dangerous butControllable Disease in Your Pet

Pet Column for the week of July 21, 1997

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Joseph Hahn
Information Specialist

Diabetes is a chronic condition in which a deficiency of the hormone insulin impairs the
body's ability to metabolize sugars. An estimated 16 million people in the United States
have diabetes, and it is the most common hormonal disorder found in dogs. Diabetes is also
diagnosed in cats, cattle, and horses.

"Diabetes generally affects middle-aged to older dogs and cats of any breed," says Dr.
Jennifer Brinson, a veterinarian specializing in internal medicine at the University of Illinois
College of Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital at Urbana.

Insulin is produced in specialized cells in the pancreas. Insulin facilitates the movement of
glucose (sugars) into the cells of the body for use as fuel. There are two types of diabetes.
The first and most often seen, called insulin dependent, occurs when the body does not
produce enough insulin. In the second, called insulin independent, enough insulin is
produced, but something interferes with the insulin's ability to transport glucose.

"The most common signs of diabetes are an increase in thirst and an increase in urination,"
says Dr. Brinson. "This is caused by excess glucose in the urine, which leads to excess
water being lost with the glucose in the urine. Your pet will then feel the need to replenish
the lost water supply."

There are a number of other things to look for if you suspect your pet has diabetes.
Commonly, people report that their pet has sticky urine. Since glucose is a great growth
medium for bacteria, urinary tract infections are also common, recognized by the presence
of blood in the urine. Pets will also have a voracious appetite because the cells of the body
are screaming for nourishment. At the beginning stages of the disease, this may cause weight
gain, but later it causes weight loss. Lethargy, cataracts, and a poor hair coat may also be
seen with diabetes.

"The biggest danger of this disease if it is left untreated is ketosis," says Dr. Brinson. "This
happens when there is so much excess glucose circulating that the body begins to break it
down into toxic compounds called ketones. Signs of ketosis include vomiting, severe
depression, a refusal to eat, lethargy, or coma. You also might notice a sweet odor to your
pet's breath if they are ketotic."

Diabetes is diagnosed through analyses of the blood and urine. Excess glucose in the blood
and excess glucose in the urine on a consistent basis indicates that your pet has diabetes.
Dr. Brinson notes that other diseases cause high blood glucose levels or high urine glucose
levels but rarely both.

"Treatment for insulin-dependent diabetes depends on if the pet has ketosis or not," says
Dr. Brinson. "A pet that has increased drinking and urinating but a good attitude and
appetite will be given injectable insulin to replace the insulin the body is not producing. This
insulin is the same type given to humans and is usually given once or twice daily. The pet will
often be switched to a diet high in fiber as well. An animal that has ketosis is treated with a
very short-acting insulin immediately by your veterinarian and may need other therapy to
correct the acid imbalance related to the ketones. Once stabilized, the pet will be treated
like a healthy diabetic patient."

Animals with non-insulin-dependent diabetes pose a different problem. These patients are
generally cats that are overweight. The treatment is to switch them to a high-fiber diet and
reduce their weight. If this action does not correct the condition, their diabetes will be
difficult to manage.

One to two weeks following the first insulin treatment, your pet should be brought to a
veterinarian so glucose levels can be tested several times in the day to check the efficacy of
the current dose of insulin. This will allow your veterinarian to select the most appropriate
dose of insulin for your pet. It is important for you to monitor your pet carefully at home to
see if the signs are improving. See your veterinarian for an adjustment in the insulin level if
the signs are not improving. "Never change the dose of insulin without first visiting your
veterinarian," says Dr. Brinson. "Having too low a glucose level can lead to depression and
seizures and can be just as life-threatening as too much."

With proper insulin regulation, the prognosis for a diabetic animal is very good. These
animals can live long and healthy lives as our friends and companions. If you would like
further information, contact your local veterinarian.