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Diabetes in pets: Treatment is a team effort

Betsy Ridenour helps manage Stella's diabetes
at home with regular insulin injections.

Betsy Ridenour spent most of her life terrified of needles—to the point that if one even appeared on TV, she had to shut her eyes. That was before the day she rushed her beloved dog, Stella, to an emergency animal hospital when she “knew something was wrong” and learned the little Dachshund has diabetes.

The veterinarian told her Stella would need regular insulin injections and asked Ridenour if she and her husband were willing to commit to giving shots at home. Despite her fear, Ridenour didn’t hesitate to say yes.

“I was so scared I was going to lose her that I would have done anything,” she said.

Just as in humans, diabetes in pets occurs when the body cannot convert glucose, or sugar, into energy due to problems producing or regulating the hormone insulin. This creates toxic compounds called ketones that, if left untreated, can result in serious illness or death. To help the pet process glucose properly, owners must administer insulin injections.

Though it was a challenge to overcome her fear of needles—and to stop giving Stella treats—Ridenour said the results made the experience worthwhile. Stella’s condition appears to have stabilized and she now snacks on diabetic dog treats and salt-free green beans. Stella’s weight has also dropped to a healthy level and Ridenour said she’s “pretty spry for an 11-year-old dog.”

“For all that I’ve been through, I’m so glad that we did it,” Ridenour said. “She’s playful—she’s just her normal self. I was afraid that she wouldn’t be, but she really is.”

Stella is a patient at AAHA-accredited Bay Road Animal Hospital, which has two locations in Sarasota, Florida. Owner David Smith, VMD, said the practice has helped many pet owners overcome their fear of needles to manage their pets’ diabetes.

“It is a treatable disease, for the most part,” Smith said, noting a small needle size helps in administering the necessary shots.

In addition to insulin injections, diabetic pets must periodically visit the veterinarian for a glucose curve, a series of blood tests that measure how well the insulin dosage is working, or a fructosamine test, which assesses blood glucose control over the last two to three weeks and requires only one blood sample.

Since she began treatment, Stella's condition has stabilized
and her weight has dropped to a healthy level. 

While diabetes in humans and animals is similar, Smith said there are some interesting differences when it comes to managing the disease in dogs versus cats.

While dogs typically require lifelong treatment, cats can spontaneously recover, requiring no further treatment.

Blood sugar levels in cats can also spike when they are excited or stressed. When this happens in the veterinary hospital, the cat’s glucose may seem out of control when it is actually stable.

In some cases, Smith will recommend owners use home glucose tests under the advice of a veterinarian to help accurately monitor the disease.

“You still want to have periodic visits to the veterinarian to do the glucose curve and make sure everything’s going well,” Smith said. “Of course, we counsel our clients to watch for changes in water consumption and urine [output]—if they suddenly see [these behaviors] start to increase markedly, then we know we’re losing control and we have to [adjust] the insulin [dosage].”

Those warning signs are also crucial to note before your pet’s diagnosis. Signs of diabetes in pets include:

  • Increased thirst and appetite
  • Larger volume of urine
  • Weight loss, despite eating
  • Cataract formation in dogs
  • In advanced cases, neuropathy in the rear legs that causes pets to crouch when walking (primarily seen in cats) or loss of appetite

To help prevent diabetes, Smith suggests making sure your dog or cat maintains a healthy weight. If your pet needs to take steroids to treat another issue, pay close attention to his behavior as this medication can promote diabetes.

As with any disease, early detection is best, so call your veterinarian if you suspect your pet is experiencing any of these signs. Smith emphasized that because the signs of diabetes are similar to other medical problems, it is key to consult your veterinarian instead of Dr. Google.

“You can look on the internet and decide your animal’s diabetic when it’s actually going into renal failure,” Smith said. “If you don’t have the right problem, you don’t know what the treatment should be. Your best source of information is your family veterinarian.”

Award-winning pet writer Jen Reeder is inspired by people who do whatever it takes to keep their animals healthy and happy.

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