Diabetes mellitus is a disorder which affects the pancreas, where the insulin secreting cells of the pancreas are destroyed, and the pancreas is unable to regulate the body’s blood sugar.

The most common signs of diabetes include:

Increased urination (high amounts of glucose are excreted in the urine, which forces the kidneys to excrete a high volume of water to dilute the glucose and other products)

Increased thirst and drinking (because there is a high volume of water excreted in the urine, the body will compensate by stimulating the thirst centre of the brain, to prevent dehydration)

Ravenous appetite (because insulin is required to turn glucose into energy, and the insulin is not being produced, the body kicks into ‘starvation mode’. This stimulates the hunger centre of the brain, increasing appetite, and increasing calories eaten. This is the body’s compensatory mechanism, however it is ineffective with diabetes, as there is no insulin available to turn glucose into energy.)

Weight Loss (because insulin is required to turn glucose into energy, and the insulin is not being produced, the body has to burn its own stores of fat and muscle to provide energy to the cells. Fat is burned first, resulting in weight loss, but when muscles are broken down to provide energy, they release toxic products into the bloodstream, making pets very sick. This is called diabetic ketoacidosis.)

There are two types of diabetes mellitus that has been discovered. Both types fail to regulate blood sugar, but they have different mechanisms of action.

Type 1, or insulin dependant diabetes, is only type of diabetes that affects dogs. Dogs with this condition will not secrete insulin, and will require regular insulin injections, given with food, to stabilise the body’s blood sugar levels.

Type II, or non-insulin dependent diabetes, occurs when the cells of the pancreas responsible for producing insulin remain, but are less effective, the amount produced is insufficient, and there is a delay in the secretion of insulin. Cats that are diabetic tend to be type II diabetic, and are rarely type I diabetic.

Diabetes can be suspected with a simple blood sugar level. The normal range is between 4-6mmol/l, and after a big meal, it may rise to 10mmol/l, but diabetic glucose levels are consistently over 20mmol/l. A urinalysis can confirm diabetes, as the body will try to compensate for a high blood sugar level by excreting it in the urine. Diabetes is the only disease that will excrete glucose in the urine, as otherwise the kidneys will actively retain glucose.

My pet has diabetes…. What now?

If your pet has diabetes, the reality is, that you will have to play an active part in your pet’s health. Although your pet may go a day or so without giving insulin, they need you to keep them health and functioning. If you consider your pets treatment as a daily routine, your pet has a much better chance of becoming a well regulated diabetic. What you will need is insulin, insulin syringes, and a special diet low in carbohydrates. Consistency is the key for a happy and healthy diabetic pet. They will need regular doses of medication, consistent feeding of a good quality diabetic formula, and a stable, stress free lifestyle. Most pets are happier and better maintained if they receive insulin injections twice daily.

Diabetic formulas are created with diabetics nutritional needs in mind. They are low in fibre, and have low amounts of sugar, and are low GI, which means they are slower to be digested. This means that the glucose in a diabetic formula is not released all at once. If your pet is overweight, the first diet prescribed will be a weight reducing formula, followed by the diabetic formula when your pets target weight is achieved.

Giving insulin injections can be scary for some people, but it really is an easy and pain free procedure. Insulin doesn’t sting when is given, is given in very small volumes, and the needles on insulin syringes are tiny. The needles of insulin syringes are short, so there is no risk of damaging any vital organs underneath the skin’s surface.

When you give insulin, you will need to ensure that the solution is mixed well- some insulin medications come as a suspension, and will need to be gently agitated to ensure mixture of the contents. Insulin will also need to be kept in the refrigerator, between 2-8 degrees C, and should not be left out of the fridge, nor should it be frozen. After giving the medication, please ensure that you dispose of the needles correctly.

Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar)

Hypoglycaemia is a serious complication of diabetes, which occurs when the blood glucose drops below 2.2mmol/l. It can be life-threatening, and being vigilant of the warning signs can save your pet’s life. Hypoglycaemia occurs when the amount of insulin given is higher than the amount of insulin needed. This occurs when the insulin level is poorly measured, given twice, or if there are behavioural changes like increases in exercise and activity, or reduction in food intake.

Hypoglycaemia occurs 5-8 hours after insulin administration, when the blood glucose in the bloodstream is depleted by being turned into energy. If your pet is mildly hypoglycaemic, they may show signs of lethargy and unresponsiveness. Within a few hours, the blood glucose starts to rise, and your pet will return back to normal. If your pet is slow to return to normal, you can try feeding a half teaspoon of honey, or rub it directly onto your pets gums in its mouth.

In severe hypoglycaemia, your pet may lose consciousness and start to seizure, and this is an emergency, correctable only by an intravenous dose of glucose.