Most people have heard of diabetes. It is, after all, a not uncommon medical condition amongst our human population. But many people are probably unaware that diabetes strikes our pets as well - there are any number of cats and dogs out there having daily injections of insulin so that they can continue to lead relatively normal lives.
So just what is diabetes? The most common form is diabetes mellitus, which is basically a failure in the production of insulin, a hormone that controls the way glucose is used in the body. Glucose, produced from the digestion of carbohydrates, is essential to every cell in the body. But without insulin, the cells can't extract the glucose - as well as some other nutrients essential to the proper functioning of the body - from the blood.
This means that the glucose levels in the blood rise dramatically - a condition known as hyperglycaemia. Some of this excess glucose spills over into the urine, drawing with it much more fluid than is normally the case. In fact, the first sign people often see with their affected pets is that they urinate more frequently, and, in an attempt to maintain their fluid levels, they also drink a lot more than usual.
They'll often become very hungry as well. Once again this is due to the failure of glucose to enter the cells, particularly those cells in the brain that control appetite.
Lack of insulin also contributes to the breakdown of fat and muscle within the body so that, although animals are often eating more than usual, they actually lose weight.
So there are four classic signs of diabetes - increased urination, increased thirst, increased appetite and a loss of weight, but it must be remembered that each of these symptoms may have other causes as well - diagnosis of diabetes depends not only on the symptoms, but also on laboratory tests on both blood and urine. A fifth sign which can occur as a result of the high blood glucose levels is the development of cataracts leading to blindness.
Animals can get diabetes at any age, although it is more common in those that are middle-aged and older, and much more common in pets that have, at least at some stage, been overweight. Dogs are more commonly affected than cats. Sometimes the disease seems to occur for no apparent reason, but it can also be a result of other disease processes. An example of this is pancreatitis, or inflammation of the pancreas, which is the body's source of insulin. If enough of the pancreas is damaged, the production of insulin falls below the necessary levels.
Some drugs, too, can contribute to diabetes, especially if used over long periods. Cortisone, a commonly used anti-inflammatory drug, is one, while the hormones in some contraceptive tablets are another.
The only practical way to treat diabetic animals is by injecting them with insulin once or twice a day. Great care is needed in the early stages because too much insulin will lead to hypoglycaemia, when the glucose levels fall too far, initially causing weakness, but ultimately, if untreated, resulting in convulsions and coma.
So initial treatments are often done in the veterinary clinic, until a dose rate is established, or at least until the high glucose levels have begun to fall. Owners are then taught to inject the insulin under the skin of their pets.
Diet is extremely important now. In order to establish and maintain the correct dose of insulin, owners need to ensure that their pets' calorie intake does not vary from day to day - no extra titbits unless they're extra every day! Prescription diets for diabetes are available - these contain the relatively high amounts of fibre important for affected animals.
As well as all this, owners must regularly check the glucose levels in their pets' urine - any changes necessitate a visit to the vet for further blood tests.
Some animals settle quickly into an insulin regime and only need occasional checks. With others, it is more difficult to establish an insulin dose, and this may sometimes be due to the animal's having other problems as well. However the treatment goes, it involves a lot of input from the owner. Daily injections, strict diets, checking the urine and regular veterinary checks are not for everyone, but for those who are happy to make that degree of commitment, the result - at best, the restoration to near normality of a beloved pet - can be very rewarding.
- Virginia Williams & Bert Westera
by Dr Marjorie Orr
Keeping your cat contained on home ground...perhaps even in an aviary? This may seem bizarre, but for some cat owners it may be the only way to keep their pet safe from the hazards of the road, and for others it might be the only way to protect birds and native animals from their cat!
Most people know that responsible cat ownership involves basic provision for their cat’s needs and ensuring that it is neutered. Until recently, keeping the family cat at home has not usually been an issue to consider and traditionally most domestic cats have wandered freely. However, attitudes are changing. Increasingly owners are realising they have an obligation to their cat, and to the community in which they live, to keep their cat at home. This is sometimes the only way to ensure that the cat will not be hit by a vehicle, that it will not harass or be harassed by other animals and that it cannot catch other animals such as songbirds and native animals.
Build A Cattery
For many owners the only sure way to protect their cats from vehicles and from other animals and to protect wildlife from them is to keep their cats at home. This means keeping them in an enclosed area at all times. For much of the time, they could still enjoy the run of the house with the family, but at times when they cannot be kept safely inside because doors or windows are open, they can be kept in a custom-made cattery.
The concept of cat "aviaries" is not as silly as it might at first seem, and they are becoming more popular overseas. They must be built by a good handyman, because of course they must be sturdy and cat-proof! They should be designed much like a boarding cattery, and the cat must have a spacious airy run with interesting objects to play on and an enclosed warm sleeping area. If the cat has a dirt tray, regular good quality meals, free access to fresh drinking water, space to play and explore, and of course the good company of its owners each day, it should be content...and safe.
To some, the idea of confining their cat may seem cruel. Indeed there are cats which have enjoyed complete freedom for years, and they would find confinement in a run distressing. But if from kittenhood the cat is accustomed to being kept in a run, and if the run is roomy and well designed, the cat should accept it happily.
Some of us often witness the effects of road accidents and animal attacks on cats. For these cats and their owners, a cattery would have prevented a lot of distress. Another benefit of the cattery option is that vulnerable animals in the neighbourhood like native birds, reptiles and insects are safe from the marauding cat, and so too are songbirds, fledglings of all types...and other cats!
But for many people and for a whole raft of reasons, a cattery is not an option. If there is no way their cats can be kept permanently at home, there are a least ways of encouraging them to stay at home as much as possible.
Neutering Is Vital
Cats which have not been neutered are much more inclined to wander than neutered cats. Tom cats in particular travel for miles in search of queens in heat. Toms can also cause road accidents indirectly because their territorial and aggressive behaviour forces other cats to keep on the move. Their male hormones make it almost inevitable that they will be involved in fights with and attacks on other cats with painful consequences for them and their victim. Neutering the cat is a basic requirement of responsible cat ownership, not least because it makes life safer for them.
Keeping Cats in at Night.
Putting the cat out a night is a common practice, but one which is not usually justified. The risk of vehicles hitting cats is greater in the dark, when it’s harder for the cat to gauge the speed and distance of oncoming vehicles and the headlights are dazzling. If a dirt tray is provided, the cat could be kept in. If they are insistent on going out, a cat flap will ensure they are not shut out.
A cat which is turned out a night may well have to go wandering to find a warm sheltered spot to rest, or to avoid the unwanted attention of tom cats. Wandering cats inevitably encounter traffic on the roads.
Avoiding the Rush Hour
If there are times of the day when the road is particularly busy, it can pay to feed the cat just beforehand and shut it in until the danger period is over. Most accidents happen during the "rush hour" particularly in dim light.
Cats that wander are more likely to be returned safely if they are wearing an ID collar. This should be light and comfortable, it should have a contact phone number written on it, and it must have an elastic insert so that if it becomes hooked up the cat can wriggle free without being strangled.
(Dr Marjorie Orr is an avid welfarist and we are lucky to have her as the Honorary Veterinary consultant to the National Council)