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Danger of diabetes: More dogs and cats are getting insulin shots

Millie the English bulldog models for an insulin shot, which dogs generally receive twice a day in the fatty part of their upper back. Jonah Bowe / Forum News Service1 / 4
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Nicole Remer of Detroit Lakes holding Julio, a 5-year-old shih tzu mix recently diagnosed with diabetes. They are sitting with Gracie, 8, also a shih tzu mix. Nathan Bowe / Forum News Service3 / 4
Loading the insulin into a syringe -- a bottle costs about $35 and can last up to 42 days, depending on the daily dosage. Jonah Bowe / Forum News Service4 / 4

DETROIT LAKES, Minn.—Nicole Remer of Detroit Lakes wants pet owners not to panic if their dog or cat is diagnosed with diabetes.

"It's not a death sentence for your pet," said Remer, a registered nurse at Essentia St. Mary's in Detroit Lakes. "They're our kids — we need to take care of them."

Remer and her wife, Michelle, recently found out that their 5-year-old shih tzu mix, Julio, is diabetic. "Our vet said they've recently seen an increase in the number of diabetic animals they're treating," she said. "Also, after doing some of my own research, I've learned that one of the leading causes of death in diabetic pets is euthanasia, because owners don't think they'll be able to care for their diabetic pet."

You don't have to be a nurse to successfully care for a diabetic pet, you simply need to regulate their food and be willing to give insulin shots twice a day, at 12-hour intervals. The shots are easy to administer, just under the skin on the upper back of a dog, for example. Give the dog the shot while he's eating and chances are he won't even notice it.

Julio, for example, "doesn't mind insulin at all," Remer said.

"He just eats and you poke him in the back of the neck and tell him he's a good boy," she added.

Diabetes is often associated with an overweight pet, and that's especially true with cats, said Dr. James McCormack of Detroit Lakes Animal Hospital.

When it comes to types of diabetes, he said, cats are more like adult humans with diabetes and dogs are more like young children with diabetes.

"It takes a very dedicated pet owner to keep a diabetic pet," he said. "In a lot of cases, people don't have the lifestyle to be there every 12 hours to give them their injections. You have to find someone to sub in."

In Julio's case, Nicole and Michelle tag team the shots, with help from friends and sometimes Georgia Nagel, the pet sitter.

Obesity isn't always linked to pet diabetes. Julio, for instance, has always been in good physical condition, but got diabetes anyway, Remer said.

"His weight, activity, diet were all good—his weight has been 20 pounds since he became an adult, we got him as a puppy from the Marshmallow Foundation," she said.

On St. Patrick's Day weekend, Remer noticed the little dog was drinking a lot more water than usual, and was urinating a lot. He seemed to be tired and out of sorts. "I'm a nurse, so I know the symptoms in humans," she said.

She took Julio to his vet, Auroch's in Audubon, owned by Dr. Dennis Lange. "Dr. Lange told me they're treating about 35 diabetic dogs right now—they get Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes," Remer said.

The vet did a glucose curve on Julio to check his glucose level, and he now gets 4 units of insulin twice day. Julio also gets at-home blood sugar tests.

It's really not that expensive to care for a diabetic pet, Remer said. "We pay 25 bucks for syringes and $35 for a bottle of insulin that lasts 42 days," she added.

Pets are often quite sick when they first get diagnosed, but they can rebound quickly as their blood sugar levels stabilize.

Still, McCormack said owners have a tough decision to make.

"There's a lot of information coming at you in a few minutes," he said. "A lot of times dogs are sick when they come in, they need a decision quickly."

It may not be possible to prevent diabetes in pets, but "weight control in cats is one thing they can do, and we think it's a factor in dogs," McCormack said.

In general, it really pays to keep your pet in shape — it can prevent a whole host of health problems. "Anytime they are 10 to 15 percent overweight, there are health problems," McCormack said.

Pet obesity in the U.S. increased in 2017, affecting 60 percent of cats and 56 percent of dogs, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention.

"The number of pets with clinical obesity continues to increase," says APOP founder and veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward. "We're continuing to see more pets diagnosed with obesity rather than overweight. Clinical obesity results in more secondary conditions such as arthritis, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and certain forms of cancer. Pets with obesity also have reduced quality of life and shorter life expectancy."