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

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 / Tribune1 / 3
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Zoe with Madyson Moats on the deck in 2016. The yellow lab lived with diabetes for several years. Submitted photo3 / 3

Angie Moats of Deer Creek says her yellow Lab, Zoe, lived life to the fullest, even though she lived her last several years with diabetes.

Zoe, who died a year ago at age 12, basically grew up on the farm with Moats' daughter, Madyson, now age 15 and a high school student at Wadena-Deer Creek. Angie herself grew up in Wadena and teaches first grade in the Wadena-Deer Creek district.

The problem of diabetes in pets seems to be getting worse, Angie said. Two other teachers that she knows of in Wadena also have diabetic dogs.

Zoe was an overweight dog, which may have led to the diabetes, but not so overweight that she couldn't go out and catch her own food when her owners tried to push more vegetables her way.

"She would never diet," Angie said. "They recommended us to feed her vegetables—she would never eat her green beans, she'd just go out and catch a rabbit and eat that."

Zoe loved food, and that's how the Moats found out she had diabetes—she unexplainably lost a bunch of weight. "That's how we knew something was wrong, so they did a lab test and that confirmed it," Angie said.

For a lot of pet owners, their dog or cat is a member of the family, and you don't turn your back on family when they get sick. That's how the Moats felt about Zoe. "Zoe was our child—it was just like your child got diabetes," she said.

But that doesn't mean it was easy.

"It's hard, it's a life-changing experience. Once you start insulin, you can't stop. You have to carry through until the dog's life is over," Angie said.

Angie said the family made a mistake early on in switching vets, because "one vet was telling us to do one thing, another vet was telling us to do another." Zoe often got urinary tract infections, and was getting her glucose level checked at the vet every week. But it never seemed to stabilize, and the diabetes took Zoe's eyesight. "She got really unhealthy towards the end," Angie said.

The twice-daily insulin shots required a lot of dedication. "We always did 7 in the morning and 7 at night. Going on vacation we had to board her, even if we were just going to be gone for the night."

Usually she took her insulin shots well, but sometimes she'd get stubborn and roll on her back to escape the syringe, Angie said.

"Once the disease took her sight, it was very difficult to see her limited in where she could go —she had lived on the farm for 12 years, she had unlimited ability to go where she wanted to." Now she had to be kenneled when she wasn't out with people, otherwise she might wander off and get lost, never to be found.

"It was life-changing: Our days revolved around Zoe," she said.

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. "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."

McCormack, who also works with the Humane Society of the Lakes, said he wouldn't recommend trying to place a diabetic dog — they do a lot better in their home environment.

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 added.

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 (APOP).

"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."