Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Diabetic cats require dedication from owners

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This may sound odd, but I have a lot in common with Rachael Herscovitch's pet cat.

I suffer from Type 2 diabetes, the fastest-growing chronic disease in the world.

Herscovitch's 14-year-old cat, Spaz, is diabetic, too.

I test my blood-sugar multiple times a day and inject myself with insulin before every meal and before going to bed.

Herscovitch tests her tubby tabby's blood-sugar at least three times a week and injects him twice daily, once in the morning and again at night.

The basic problem is that Spaz and I have fairly sedentary lifestyles and we're both overweight -- I check in around 280 pounds, whereas Spaz tips the scales at a hefty 9.8 kilograms, well above his ideal weight of 6.8 kg.

When Herscovitch, 29, an animal health technologist at the Winnipeg Humane Society, got Spaz two years ago from her brother, she knew the older cat had to be diabetic.

"As soon as I brought him home, I saw how much he was drinking and urinating and I knew right away," she recalled. A quick trip to the veterinarian confirmed his blood-sugar was too high to read.

The diagnosis of diabetes -- and the health threats from the illness's downstream complications -- is a game-changer for pets and their owners.

"It consumes your life," said Herscovitch. "It's like having a child. To just pick up and take off is not possible. I have to be home at a certain time and be up at a certain time. It'll take over your life, but I don't mind.

"To own my diabetic cat costs me about $500 a month for insulin, the proper food and syringes. They can be very costly and a lot of people don't have the time or the money to do it. You have to be very dedicated when you have a diabetic cat, or any animal."

In her case, giving Spaz daily insulin injections is no big deal, but Herscovitch understands how challenging it can be for an untrained owner to poke a needle into a reluctant pet.

"It's a lot easier for me to do it," she says. "I've dealt with lots of people with diabetic pets and it can be very difficult for them. They always worry they didn't get the needle in and actually inject the cat. A lot of people are just uncomfortable giving a needle to their pet. They're squeamish, and they worry about hurting them."

On top of that, a diabetic pet receiving insulin has to be monitored for the warning signs -- lethargy, not eating, shaking, "the drunk walk, stumbling around" -- that their blood-sugar has fallen to a dangerous low.

It's a situation more and more owners are finding themselves in as the number of diabetic pets continues to grow, albeit at a slower rate than the burgeoning global epidemic threatening humans.

Dr. Erika Anseeuw, director of animal health at the Winnipeg Humane Society, says the problem is worsened by the fact owners tend to overfeed their animals, giving them a diet of high-calorie store-bought treats.

"It (diabetes) is very common, especially in obese pets, the same as in people," Anseeuw said on a recent afternoon in her office at the shelter's bustling surgical clinic. "Cats especially."

While reliable stats aren't handy -- some studies suggest one in 500 dogs develop the disease -- the veterinarian said the incidence is likely far higher than people realize.

"Obesity is very common in pets because people equate treats with love and attention," Anseeuw said. "Diabetes is one of the side-effects of obesity and the oral medication doesn't work in pets."

It's not set in stone, but experts typically say cats develop a condition similar to Type 2 diabetes in humans, where the body doesn't produce enough insulin or is resistant to the insulin it does produce. In dogs, the condition is similar to Type 1 diabetes in humans, where the pancreas no longer produces the hormone.

Without insulin, sugar builds up in the blood stream instead of being used for energy, damaging organs, blood vessels and nerves. Chronic high blood sugar can lead to a host of complications, everything from vision loss to kidney failure to numbness in limbs to sudden weight loss to slow healing of cuts and sores.

In animals, Anseeuw said, the type of diabetes doesn't matter. What matters is they need insulin to survive, "and the bottom line is, diabetes shortens the life of your pet."

She said the incidence of diabetes is much higher in cats than dogs.

"The good news with pets is most of the cases can be prevented by simply not allowing your pet to become obese," she said. "The bulk of our cases are related to nutrition and exercise. There are some cases related to disease of the pancreas, but they are exceptionally rare."

She said many cat owners don't recognize the disease in their pet until it experiences rapid weight loss, which can result in severe, irreversible liver damage. In contrast, dog owners typically pursue treatment sooner.

"People are more involved in the life of their dogs," Anseeuw said. "They walk the dog every day, they play games with the dog. Whereas a cat, especially a fat cat, tends to be just over there in the corner."

While dogs tend to remain on insulin after being diagnosed, she said, the great news for cat owners is their pets can often be weaned through a healthier diet and exercise. "A lot of cats you can get off insulin," she said. "You can reverse it or prevent it with help from your veterinarian."

As both a struggling diabetic and a responsible dog owner, I get the last word. Want to prevent your pet from becoming diabetic? Just ask yourself one question: Who buys the groceries in your house?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2014 C5

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