Canine Diabetes: My Experience With a Diabetic Dog
November 14th marks World Diabetes Day, but humans aren't the only ones who suffer from this disease. Canine diabetes and feline diabetes often affect human companions, their beloved cats and dogs.
Diabetes mellitus strikes 1 in 400 cats and a similar number of dogs, though recent veterinary studies note that it is becoming more common lately in cats. Symptoms in dogs and cats are similar to those in humans. Generally, most dogs and about 5-20% of cats experience type-1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes, rather than the type-2 that's now becoming common in obese humans. The other 80-95% of cats experience type-2 diabetes. The condition is definitely treatable, and need not shorten the animal's life span or life quality. In type-2 cats, prompt effective treatment can even lead to diabetic remission, in which the cat no longer needs injected insulin. Untreated, the condition leads to blindness in dogs, increasingly weak legs in cats, and eventually malnutrition, ketoacidosis and/or dehydration, and death.
When my dog was 13 she was diagnosed with diabetes. She was a big old mutt, about 125 pounds, a bit arthritic and definitely senior. But even at that age she loved rolling around in the grass at the park, swimming and playing with other dogs...so when she started acting strangely (drinking water non-stop, urinating in the house, having considerable difficulty getting up, staggering a bit) I took her to the vet immediately and hoped it wasn't serious.
As soon as I mentioned the increased water drinking and urinating, my vet sent Chloe outside with an assistant who took a urine sample. The ketones in her urine were through the roof, and my vet sent us home with the recommendation that I put Chloe down. I was shattered; treatment options were available, but my vet wasn't recommending that route.
I was terrified that I would make a decision out of selfishness, and feared that if I decided to regulate her on insulin (a days-long procedure that would require her to stay at the vet hospital and cost hundreds of dollars) I would be prolonging her pain for my benefit. But something my brother said stuck with me and made the decision very clear. He said, "I don't think it's fair to extinguish a life while there is still life there." So we went ahead with treating the diabetes.
Chloe stayed at the vet's for nearly 3 days while they regulated her on insulin doses twice a day, closely monitoring her blood sugar levels. When I picked her up, she was incredibly anxious but happy and relieved to see me. Learning how to administer the insulin injections was a breeze - you don't have to hit a vein, just an easy shot in the scruff of the neck. Keeping up with monitoring the glucose levels/ketones in her urine was another challenge, though. A bit embarrassing crouching down behind my dog with urine strips in front of our neighbours, but I got over that pretty quickly. When we revisited the vet after a few weeks for a check-up, the doctor was amazed - it was clear that she realized she had made the wrong suggestion when she hinted that I should put Chloe down. This dog had a new lease on life.
A few weeks on the insulin Chloe's eyesight started to worsen - at 13 it wasn't all too great to begin with, but within weeks she was nearly blind. She seemed to be adjusting quite well though - I taught her new words on walks, such as "step up" and "step down" and she would blindly flail her paws on those commands searching for the curb. Poor eyesight slow down the pep in her walk, though she did bump into a few light posts along the way when I wasn't paying attention - she quickly learned what "watch out!" meant as well. I taught her these things on my own, and was disappointed when I asked the vets if there was anything else I could do to help her adjust to the near-blindness. The only advice they had was, "don't move the furniture in your house around." They were shocked when I told them I had taught her these new walking commands, and I was shocked they hadn't suggested doing so in the first place.
Chloe lived for another full year as a diabetic dog, to the age of 14. She was loving life right up until the very end, and I had adjusted fairly quickly to my life of rushing home twice a day every day for a year to give her her shots. Taking care of a diabetic pet is a lot of responsibility, as their diet and insulin needs to be well regulated and closely watched. Anything that required my attention at 9am or 9pm was out of the question - you make that commitment to give up aspects of your social life and freedom when and if you decide to take the treatment route with your diabetic pet, but the commitment is well worth it.
Other advice I have for pet owners adjusting to life with a diabetic dog:
- Carry emergency glucose gel packs or corn syrup with you at all times. Chloe had a diabetic episode once during a walk and I had to flag down an ambulance for help - we were lucky.
- Talk a lot, especially if your dog is dealing with blindness. I would whistle, scuff my shoes on the pavement or talk during walks so that Chloe could always hear where I was.
- Try simple new commands if you think your sight-challenged dog is having trouble. Chloe picked these up quite quickly, but her mind was still intact so that helped - she learned "step up," "step down," "careful," and "watch out!" She would become cautious at careful, and stop in her tracks at watch out.
- Give a treat when you administer the insulin, or do it while your dog is eating.
Here's to finding a cure for diabetic people, and animals, all around the world on November 14.