Weight changes in dogs and cats - could it be diabetes?

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Find food that fits your pet’s needs

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Lots of owners worry about the weight of their pet - is it ideal, are they too fat or too thin? It’s a really good thing to be aware of. Obesity can shorten life, cause illnesses such as diabetes and joint disease and impact the quality of life of your pet too. Being too thin or underweight is usually more worrying. If you weigh your dog or cat regularly it’s an excellent way to pick up changes in both directions and either correct their rations, change foods (always talk to your vet before changing foods) or, most importantly, catch any disease as early as possible. Thyroid problems and diabetes are two of the diseases that can cause weight gain and loss. In this article we are going to look at diabetes. You can read about thyroid problems here.

Diabetes is a disease where the sugar level in the blood is too high and the cells in the body that need that energy can’t access it. Dogs and cats tend to be pretty different when it comes to diabetes. Let’s look at cats first.

Diabetes in cats.

Diabetes in cats is much more common in obese and older cats. A hormone called insulin is produced by the pancreas and is what helps transport sugar from the blood into the cells. In most diabetic cats the body produces enough insulin to start with but the cells do not respond normally to it and as a result, the blood glucose can’t be transported into the cells. The pancreas tries its best to make up for this by producing more insulin but eventually becomes exhausted and insulin levels drop too low so the situation gets worse. While obesity is the most common cause of diabetes in cats, it can also be caused by diseases like Cushing’s Syndrome and acromegaly and by certain medications like progestins and corticosteroids. 

The most common signs of diabetes are drinking and urinating more than normal and weight loss even though your cat may be eating well. This is why even if your cat was overweight to start with they lose weight and may become too thin if not diagnosed. Your vet will need to do a series of blood tests to see if your cat always has high blood sugar. They might also ask you to do some skin-prick blood tests at home. If you can do this it is a much better way to know if the results are true. Cats tend to get quite stressed at the vet’s and this can falsely raise their blood sugar. If you can do the tests at home it can really help and it’s easier than you might imagine.

The first thing your vet might want to do is start insulin treatment and also it’s important to stop the uncontrolled weight loss. You will need to do insulin injections at home. Lots of owners worry about this but talk to your vet before you start to panic too much. Lots of cats tolerate it really well. Changing your cat’s food to a dietetic food for diabetes and/or weight loss is also really important. Your vet will work out the right ration either to stop the weight loss if it’s dangerously fast, or, if your cat is stable but still overweight, gradually reduce their weight. The right nutrition in cats can sometimes even reverse the disease.

Diabetes in dogs.

Diabetes in dogs tends to be because of a lack of insulin production. This is usually because the immune system, for reasons we often don’t know, starts attacking and destroying the cells that make the insulin. These days, sadly, we are also seeing more dogs with obesity-related diabetes because so many animals are overweight.

The common signs, of drinking and urinating more than usual, and weight loss, are the same in dogs as in cats and they will also need blood tests and insulin injections to get the condition under control. Nutrition is important in diabetic dogs too. For the obesity-related cases, as with cats, you may find that you can reverse the disease. While this is not the case for the dogs with the immune problems, nutrition can still help keep them stable. We usually use a higher fibre food to keep the digestion steady and control the amount of glucose or sugar entering the bloodstream. Never change your dog’s food without talking to your vet. If your dog is underweight this must be corrected before high fibre is used.

Does it matter?

Yes it does. Hyperglycaemia, the medical term for high blood sugar, is very dangerous long term. If diabetes isn’t treated it can lead to multiple medical problems and, most critically, DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis). DKA is a medical emergency and can cause vomiting, dehydration, collapse, coma and even death.

Even though diabetes can’t be cured, lots of cats and dogs can do really well on insulin and appropriate nutrition. Please don’t worry about the injections until you’ve tried. Your vet team will help you and lots of animals aren’t bothered at all. A team effort can mean many more years with your cat or dog.

Contributor Bio

Dr. Emma Milne

Dr Emma Milne qualified as a vet in 1996. She worked in small animal practice for 12 years and as a clinical nutrition advisor for seven years. She is well known for her animal welfare work and has written ten books on pet animals.