Diabetes is a common health problem for pets. Dr. Margarethe Hoenig, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois College Of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, is one of the foremost researchers in diabetes and obesity in dogs and cats.

Animals with diabetes have high levels of blood sugar because their bodies are not able to produce or to properly use insulin. The clinical signs of diabetes include increased drinking and urination and weight loss despite an increased food intake.

Dog breeds predisposed to diabetes include Samoyeds, miniature schnauzers, miniature poodles, pugs, and toy poodles. Breeds at low risk to develop the disease include German shepherds, boxers, and American pit bulls. In cats, males are at greater risk of diabetes than females.

While the classifications used to characterize diabetes in human medicine have similarities to the disease in dogs and cats, many aspects are different.

"Type 1 diabetes mellitus in humans is marked by autoimmune destruction of beta cells, the cells that store and release insulin," said Dr. Hoenig. "This is common in dogs as well. However, while Type 1 diabetes arises early in life in people, this form of the disease occurs mostly in older dogs.

"Diabetes in cats, which also arises in older animals, is characterized by the presence of amyloid, an insoluble fibrous protein that is the hallmark of Type 2 diabetes," she says.

Whereas people with Type 2 diabetes are treated with non-insulin oral drugs, these medications are not used for cats; most cats are treated with insulin.

"Our research has recently shown many newly diagnosed diabetic cats actually have very low blood insulin concentrations. Therefore, daily insulin injections would indeed be the best treatment," says Dr. Hoenig.

"The prevalence of diabetes mellitus is increasing in both dogs and cats, probably due to an increase in obesity," says Dr. Hoenig. "Only in cats has obesity been clearly identified as a major risk factor for diabetes. It is important to note weight loss reverses obesity-induced insulin resistance."

While it has long been thought that obesity is not a risk factor for diabetes in dogs, recent data show an increase in canine obesity of 37 percent between 2007 and 2012 and a 32 percent increase in canine diabetes over the same period. This strongly suggests that obesity also needs to be considered a risk factor in dogs.

The best way to lower diabetes in cats is to educate owners about controlling caloric intake in their pets. Most owners make food available to their cats at all times, which contributes to overeating and overweight.

"A healthy lifestyle is important for pets. Exercise, a balanced nutritional intake, and maintaining normal body weight are important aspects of a healthy lifestyle. Free feeding is not good for dogs or cats," said Dr. Hoenig.

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