How to Cope with a Diabetic Dog
If you are like most pet owners, you probably are unaware that dogs and cats can develop diabetes. Until my own dog was diagnosed, I had never heard of diabetes in pets. Diabetes mellitus (fancy medical term) is actually quite common in dogs, particularly females and obese dogs, and generally develops between 6 and 9 years of age. Some breeds have more incidences of diabetes, such as poodles, German shepherds, golden retrievers, keeshonds, cairn terriers, dachshunds, schnauzers, even my miniature pincher, but all breeds can be affected. Although diabetes is manageable, just like in humans, it can be a challenge.
What is diabetes?
There are two types of diabetes: Type I and Type II. Type I, also called juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, results when islet cells in the pancreas fail to produce insulin. Type II diabetes results when islet cells incorrectly respond to the insulin produced, sometimes referred to as insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas that enables glucose to pass into blood cells and then muscles and organs to be converted to energy for carbohydrate, protein, and fat metabolism. Impaired insulin function results in high levels of glucose in the blood (hyperglycemia) and urine (glycosuria). Glucose in the urine causes excessive urination (we're talking buckets), which then creates dehydration, causing excessive drinking of water (also buckets).
Type I diabetes is the most common form in dogs (there are no known cases of Type II diabetes). Type II is the most common form in humans and cats.
The following are common symptoms of diabetes:
- Excessive thirst
- Excessive urination
- Weight loss
- Change in appetite (excessive hunger early on and then loss of appetite later)
- Blindness, usually due to cataracts.
If you see these symptoms in your pet, take them to a veterinarian immediately. A formal diagnosis can be made through a physical examination, urinalysis, and blood work.
What is the treatment for diabetes?
Diabetes can be regulated by daily insulin injections and diet control. Unfortunately, oral medications that have been developed for treating diabetes have proven ineffective for dogs. Every pet is different, so a specific course of treatment will need to be prescribed by your veterinarian. Insulin treatment is usually based on weight, but weekly glucose curves (a series of blood glucose tests performed over 12 to 24 hours) at the veterinary clinic will help refine dosage requirements. Your veterinarian will also probably prescribe a diet based on your pet's dietary needs. What is most important is that you keep a consistent feeding and injection schedule, ideally feeding your pet the same amount of the same food at the same time twice a day at 12 hours apart. Insulin injections should be made either directly before or after meals. Depending on your management plan, you will also need to monitor your pet's blood sugar levels with a glucose meter and adjust insulin dosage if sugar levels swing too high or low.
Your veterinarian will work with you to establish a management plan and will show you how to properly give an injection and how to monitor your pet's blood sugar at home. It is important to continue to monitor your pet's behavior, appetite, and general well being and to contact your veterinarian if you notice any changes.
What else do I need to worry about?
Diabetes is the gift that keeps on giving. With early detection and proper maintenance, your diabetic pet can live a healthy normal life; however, it can also lead to other health complications if left unchecked. The following health conditions are some of the complications that accompany or result from diabetes:
- Cataracts. Cataracts are cloudy areas of the lens of the eye that can impair vision. They are very common among diabetic pets.
- Urinary tract, bladder, and kidney infections. These types of infections are also common among diabetic pets because the sugar in their urine makes their bladders perfect incubators for bacteria.
- Hypoglycemia. Despite regular care, hypoglycemia (or low blood glucose) can still happen and is deadly if left untreated. Common symptoms of hypoglycemia include depression, lethargy, confusion, dizziness, trembling, weakness, loss of bladder control, vomiting, and loss of consciousness or possible seizures. At the first signs of symptoms, call your veterinarian and offer food to your pet. If your pet refuses the food, apply corn syrup or honey to your finger and rub on your pet's gums or under the tongue.
- Ketoacidosis. Diabetic ketoacidosis is a life-threatening condition that results from severe hyperglycemia (high blood glucose) in which ketones build up in the blood. The liver produces ketones as a by-product of fat metabolism. Urine tests can detect high levels of ketones and the possible beginning stages of diabetic ketoacidosis. Symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis include vomiting, weakness, rapid breathing, and breath that smells like acetone or nail polish remover. Immediately contact your veterinarian if you see these symptoms or suspect diabetic ketoacidosis.
Life with a diabetic dog
I am not a veterinarian. My knowledge of diabetes in dogs comes from a year and a half of living with a diabetic miniature pincher named Squirt. After he was diagnosed, we talked with a few veterinarians and did tons of research to make sure we could keep Squirt healthy and happy for as long as possible. I urge anyone with a diabetic pet to get as much information as you can to keep up with the disease and your pet.
Squirt was just coming up on his eighth birthday when we noticed he was constantly drinking water and then needing to urinate promptly afterward. He began getting up in the middle of the night and urinating on the floor (buckets, as I mentioned) or in the middle of the day before he could alert us to his needs. At first we thought he was drinking more because it was a dry, Colorado winter, and as a result needed to urinate more. As the behavior persisted, he also started to lose weight, despite normal appetite and energy levels. I remembered these were symptoms of diabetes in humans, so we decided to take Squirt to the veterinarian to get him tested. Sure enough, he was diagnosed as diabetic and immediately our world changed.
The fun part of insulin treatments is that they have to be consistent and as close to the same time as possible every day. Goodbye sleeping in on weekends. Goodbye convenient dinner plans or nights out. Because of our work schedules, we feed and inject Squirt around 6:15 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. every day. On top of all that, Squirt is a bit of a diva and drama queen. While getting him regulated, he was very difficult to calm down to make the injection. He would yelp and cry before the needle even got close to him. We finally found a system of my husband holding and distracting Squirt while I make the injection. It is now a much quicker and painless process, but still a two-person operation.
Part of insulin treatment is needle disposal. When Squirt was first diagnosed, our veterinarian would take our used needles and dispose of them. They eventually changed their policy and we had to figure something else out. You can purchase sharps containers (the red containers with the biohazard sign on them) at many pharmacies (some will also take the containers and dispose of them as well) or there are online sites that sell containers with mail back packaging. Doctor's offices, hospitals, and health departments are also good places to check for disposal.
Our veterinarian prescribed a diabetic food that we give him twice a day. This means we have two separate bowls on two sides of the kitchen so Squirt eats his special food while our other dog, Benji, eats regular adult dog food. At first, Benji was having trouble adjusting to the schedule and was much slower in eating his food. Squirt, on the other hand, adjusted quickly and would sneak over to Benji's bowl if we weren't looking. We also had to move the cat's food to higher ground.
Squirt has started to develop cataracts, but so far he sees okay and isn't in any pain. He has also developed a bladder infection. He first got the infection while he was at the overnight kennel while we were out of town. The veterinarian at the kennel prescribed antibiotics and he seemed to be doing better after we got home. Ten days later and the day after finishing his antibiotics, we came home to blood and urine all over his crate. We immediately took him to the veterinarian and we were told he still had a bladder infection and it must be particularly nasty bacteria. He still had trouble controlling his bladder in the house (even with us taking him out every hour on the hour) and had labored urination too. A day or so later, his symptoms got better, but his separation anxiety seemed to exacerbate the infection. All day at home he was fine and his urine looked normal again. If we put him in the crate to go anywhere, however, blood started to come back into the urine. Once again, he went to the vet and was tested more. Turns out the little guy had small kidney stones, most likely due to the issues with the bladder infection. He also had high liver enzymes, so his insulin was adjusted and he was prescribed a new hepatic food to integrate with his diabetic food. He is much better now, but it just goes to show that vigilance is key with a diabetic pet.
Despite the trials and tribulations of having a diabetic pet, Squirt is still a much loved member of our family. It only takes a puppy-eyed look or nuzzling in your face to forget that you just got up at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, before the sun was even up, or that you just finished cleaning up urine on your floor, despite taking Squirt out just 30 minutes ago. If your pet recently was diagnosed with diabetes, don't despair! Squirt's case is particularly challenging and not all pets will have the same problems. Many pet owners are able to regulate their pet with fewer behavioral or health issues. Your diabetic pet can still live a healthy and relatively normal life.