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Seven Myths About Pet Diabetes

Welcome to “Debarking Pet Myths,” a monthly series dedicated to addressing common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.

Like millions of Americans, millions of dogs and cats are living with diabetes. And as with people, the number of diabetic pets is climbing. Because November is recognized as Pet Diabetes Month™ and National Diabetes Month by veterinary and human health organizations, it’s only appropriate that we debunk seven common myths and misconceptions about diabetes in cats and dogs.

Myth #1: Dogs and cats don’t get diabetes like people do.

Totally false. Diabetes — or more appropriately, diabetes mellitus — is more common in cats and dogs than many pet owners realize. So if you didn’t know your dog or cat could develop diabetes, you’re not alone.

Diabetes occurs when your pet’s pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin or has lost the ability to produce insulin altogether. It also results when the body’s cells don’t respond properly to the insulin that the pancreas does make, a phenomenon called insulin resistance.

Veterinary internal medicine specialists estimate that between one in 100 and one in 500 dogs will develop diabetes. Most dogs will be dependent on insulin at diagnosis, which is similar to type 1 diabetes in people. In these cases, the pancreas has permanently lost the ability to make sufficient insulin. That means diabetic dogs need lifelong insulin therapy.

Experts also estimate that between one in 100 and one in 500 cats will develop diabetes. The majority (70 to 75 percent) of cats are also insulin-dependent at diagnosis and will need lifelong insulin injections. The remaining 25 to 30 percent of cats have a form of diabetes that’s similar to human type 2 diabetes. Early diagnosis, treatment with insulin and a change in diet provides the greatest chance of reversing diabetes (called diabetic remission) in a cat. However, if a cat hasn’t gone into remission within six to 10 months of diagnosis, they’ll likely need lifelong insulin treatment.

Myth #2: Your pet got diabetes because he or she is overweight or obese.

That’s not really true, but obesity does play a role in diabetes development. Obese cats and dogs are at greater risk for getting diabetes, just like overweight and obese people are. However, diabetes occurs in dogs and cats of all ages, both genders and all breeds. The disease frequently affects middle-aged to older dogs, especially intact (not spayed) females, and older cats, especially neutered males.

Research has shown that obesity, sedentary lifestyle, genetics and health conditions such as chronic pancreatitis and hyperthyroidism are the primary risk factors for diabetes in cats. In dogs, the primary cause of diabetes is unknown; however, experts believe genetics plays the biggest role in its development.

RELATED POST: Are They at Risk for Pet Diabetes?

Myth #3: Carbohydrates in pet food cause obesity and diabetes in cats.

Nope, that’s false. It’s the intake of excess calories — whether from protein, fat or carbohydrates — that leads pets (and people) to pack on the pounds. Low-carbohydrate foods, which may be higher in fat and calories, are more likely to cause a cat to become overweight, especially if that cat is an inactive indoor kitty.

Veterinary researchers have specifically looked into the connection between carbohydrates in dry cat food and feline diabetes. What they found is that lack of physical activity, indoor lifestyle, gender, breed and high-fat — but not high-carbohydrate — diets were the factors that lead to increased weight, insulin resistance and diabetes in cats.

RELATED POST: Does Dry Food Really Cause Diabetes in Cats?

Myth #4: Diabetes is hereditary and can’t be prevented.

True and false. Scientists have found genetic markers that suggest certain breeds of cats and dogs — such as Siamese cats and Samoyeds, cairn terriers, border terriers, dachshunds and schnauzers — are more likely to develop diabetes. But that doesn’t mean all dogs or cats of those breeds will have diabetes. It just means they have an increased risk of the disease and steps should be taken to reduce the odds that it develops.

To help your pet avoid diabetes:

  • Maintain your dog or cat at a healthy weight. If you’re not sure how much your pet should weigh, talk with your veterinarian.
  • Feed a complete and balanced diet. This includes limiting treats to no more than 10 percent of your dog’s or cat’s daily calories.
  • Provide your dog or cat with plenty of physical activity. Exercise helps keep your pet from becoming bored and can help manage their weight.

Myth #5: Your diabetic dog will immediately become blind.

Partially false. One of the common long-term complications of canine diabetes is the development of cataracts. The speed at which cataracts develop depends on how well your dog’s diabetes is controlled. Increased blood glucose (sugar) levels reduce the fluids naturally found in your dog’s eyes, causing cataracts to form. If your dog’s diabetes is closely and well regulated, cataracts wouldn’t be expected to form as quickly as when blood glucose levels are poorly controlled.

A review of 200 cases of canine diabetes published in the journal Veterinary Ophthalmology found about 50 percent of dogs will develop cataracts in both eyes within six months of their diabetes diagnosis. Around 80 percent of diabetic dogs are affected within 16 months.

Once a cataract causes blindness, surgery may be recommended. Cataract surgery is typically performed by a veterinary ophthalmologist and can be expensive — assuming your diabetic dog is a good candidate for surgery. Pre- and post-surgical care will require a significant commitment on your part, too.

Myth #6: Diabetes can sometimes be reversed through diet and nutrition.

Partially true. Diabetic remission is far more common in cats than in dogs. That’s because a dog’s pancreas has completely lost its ability to produce insulin by the time diabetes is diagnosed. As a result, insulin injections are necessary to control diabetes.

About one-third of cats may experience remission of their diabetes after weeks or months of insulin therapy and diet changes. However, remission doesn’t mean a diabetic cat is cured. It’ll still be important that your cat maintains a healthy weight and body condition, eats an appropriate food and stays active. Even then, it’s possible your kitty will need insulin again.

Myth #7: A diabetic pet’s quality and quantity of life is less than a healthy pet’s.

Mostly false. Although diabetes can’t be cured, it is possible to successfully manage your pet’s diabetes through daily insulin therapy, an appropriate diet and regular physical activity. And when those actions are taken, there’s no reason why your diabetic dog or cat can’t fully live out the rest of their natural life span.

The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.


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