A few months ago, Chewie started to lose weight, and at the same time, he began to drink more water than usual. When this trend continued for more than just a few days, Shauna did her own research on the internet, and discovered that diabetes was a possible cause of his problem.
When she brought Chewie to see me, a simple blood test was all that was needed to confirm the diagnosis. I measured his blood sugar (glucose): it was meant to be between 3 and 6, and it turned out to be over 30, nearly ten times the normal level. There was no need for any other tests: this confirmed that Chewie was suffering from diabetes.
The full name for diabetes is “diabetes mellitus”, but this term is rarely used. The problem is a hormonal issue, and there are two things that can go wrong. First, the pancreas, a gland in the abdomen located beside the liver, stops producing a hormone called insulin, the hormone which keeps the blood glucose level at a low healthy level. And second, the body’s cells around the body develop resistance to insulin, failing to take up and use the glucose in the bloodstream, again causing blood glucose levels to rise. Different cases of diabetes have different elements of each of these factors, but the end result is the same: the dog’s blood glucose is sky high.
High blood glucose has multiple effects around the body, but the most obvious one is increased urine production, because the high levels of glucose cause leakage of glucose in the kidneys from the blood into the urine, and this draws extra fluid with it. Since more urine is produced, affected dogs need to drink more water to replace it, and that’s usually the most obvious sign to owners that there’s something seriously wrong.
There are many other causes of increased thirst, including liver disease, kidney disease and other serious illnesses. The only way to confirm diabetes is to take a urine and blood sample, confirming high glucose levels in both.
The treatment for diabetes is simple but it can be a challenge: twice daily injections of insulin, forever. This is usually effective, regardless of which type of diabetes is going on.
When I explained this to Shauna, she wasn’t surprised: she had already expected this after reading up on diabetes on the internet. She also realised that it wouldn’t be as difficult as it sounded: many owners of diabetes pets have shared how easy it is to give the injections. The needle is so fine and sharp, and the volume that’s injected is so tiny: most dogs barely notice that it’s happening.
The challenge when a dog is initially diagnosed with diabetes is to work out how much insulin they need: this varies from dog to dog. If too little is given, the dog will continue to be unwell, but if too much is given, the blood glucose can drop too low, and there’s a risk of the animal slipping into unconsciousness, or even dying. It’s important to start with a low dose, and to gradually increase this over days and weeks while taking regular blood samples to monitor the glucose levels.
Shauna started by giving Chewie low levels of insulin, and a few weeks later, we are still gradually increasing the dose, with regular blood tests to make sure he isn’t getting too much. There was one glitch: on one occasion, Shauna thought that the injection had squirted into Chewie’s fur rather than under his skin. To be sure, she gave a second dose of insulin. That night, Chewie started staggering around, unable to stand up properly. She dripped honey onto his gums, and within a few minutes he made a full recovery. She has learned that it’s safer to give too little insulin rather than to risk giving too much.
Chewie will need treatment for the rest of his life, but Shauna’s happy to do anything for her much-loved little dog.