Question: We have just found out that our eight-year-old slightly overweight female Schnauzer, Cassie, has diabetes. Our regular vet has started her on insulin injections. Are there any holistic options that can help?
G.G., via email
Answer: Diabetes mellitus is a common condition that affects cats and dogs, although it occurs more often in female dogs and male cats. It is an endocrine disorder of carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism caused by a deficiency in the pancreatic hormone insulin.
As in humans, diabetes is classified as type 1 (insulin dependent) and type 2 (non-insulin dependent). Almost all dogs and 50-70 percent of cats with diabetes have type 1. There is no complete recovery from diabetes, but it can be successfully controlled so that your pet can have a good quality of life.
Diabetes is caused by an absence or deficiency of the hormone insulin, which controls blood glucose levels. Insulin deficiency prevents your pet from converting sugar (glucose) in its diet into energy. As a consequence, there is more glucose circulating in their blood and more sugar excreted in their urine.
Genetic susceptibility, certain infections or drug exposures, pancreatitis, Cushing's disease (when the body produces too much of the steroid hormone cortisol), immune-mediated destruction of beta cells in the pancreas of dogs and amyloidosis (abnormal protein deposits) in cats are the main causes of diabetes. Obesity is a common cause of type 2 diabetes in female dogs and cats, with unspayed female dogs more at risk than spayed ones.
In the early stages of diabetes, you may notice Cassie drinking and urinating more than normal. She is also likely to lose weight despite eating a lot, and may be constantly ravenous and begging for food. Recurrent cystitis, sweet-smelling 'ketotic' breath and cataracts may be seen in the later stages if the diabetes is not adequately controlled.
Diabetic ketoacidosis—when the body produces high levels of blood acids called ketones—is an emergency, and you should rush your pet to the vet if you notice symptoms. These include lethargy, weakness, excessive thirst, vomiting, weight loss, muscle wasting, decreased appetite, dehydration and unkept coat.
Daily insulin injections are an important part of treating diabetes in pets. If your pet is otherwise well, and the vet is sure that the diagnosis is uncomplicated diabetes, they'll start your pet on injections and teach you to administer them yourself with special syringes and needles.
You may need to visit your vet once or twice a day for injections until Cassie is stabilized and the vet is happy with your technique. Most vets will provide you with a video and leaflets explaining the procedure. It is important to strictly follow the vet's advice and try your best to inject insulin at the same time every day.
There are also plenty of holistic treatments to support your diabetic pet. Here's what I recommend.
Diet is crucial when it comes to diabetes. Here are some basic guidelines.
Watch out for sugar. A diet based on high-quality complex carbohydrates (lentils, whole grains, broccoli, spinach, etc.) with no simple sugars, restricted fat and moderate protein levels is needed to prevent wide fluctuations in blood glucose. Many commercial pet foods contain hidden sugars, so check labels carefully and choose a good-quality product. Alternatively, feed a homemade diet so you can control exactly what your pet is eating (see my book You Can Heal Your Pet for guidelines).
Avoid titbits. Whatever her diet, it's important to feed Cassie her daily ration in two divided meals before injecting her with insulin. Any extra titbits or treats will mess with the control of diabetes, so take care to avoid this. Feeding a low-fat protein—chicken or turkey is ideal—can make a big difference. See the box, right, for a recipe.
Increase fiber. A tablespoon of a high-fiber source like canned pumpkin or wheat bran can help ensure that food is absorbed more gradually, making it easier for insulin to handle the surge. Fiber can also be increased by adding raw vegetables to your pet's food. Peas and string beans are liked by many dogs and some cats.
Reduce portions. Cats are prone to obesity, as many tend to lead a sedentary lifestyle. Cutting down your cat or dog's food by 25 percent can help. When cats lose weight, sometimes the diabetes goes away.
Regular moderate exercise is beneficial, but take care not to overexert your dog.
Both vitamin E and fish oil may improve the insulin response and can even increase insulin production, while vanadium, a trace mineral, can help pets respond better to their natural insulin and may therefore help reduce the amount of injected insulin needed to keep them stable.
Salmon oil or other fish oil. Cats: one-third of a 1,000 mg capsule; dogs under 15 lb (7 kg): half a capsule; larger dogs: 1-2 capsules daily
Vitamin E. Cats, and dogs under 15 lb (7 kg): 100 IU twice daily; dogs 15-50 lb (7-23 kg): 200 IU twice daily; dogs over 50 lb (23 kg): 400 IU twice daily
Vanadium. Cats: 4-8 mg daily; dogs: 5-8 mg daily per 10 lb (5 kg) body weight
Traditional Chinese veterinary medicine
According to TCVM, treatment for a diabetic pet should aim to clear stomach heat and tonify the spleen qi and kidney essence. The best meat to eat according to expert TCVM practitioner Dr Cheryl Schwartz, DVM, is pork, the coolest of the muscle meats. After trimming the fat, it can be cooked as a stew.
Sardines, another good choice, are rich in omega 3 oils, which aid glucose metabolism.
You can try using acupressure on your pet—see my book You Can Heal Your Pet for detailed guidelines. The following points are best for diabetes, but note that it's important to use light pressure, work on only one point in a day and treat every few days.
BL13: Bladder 13 or 'Lung's Hollow' is useful to curb the thirst experienced by diabetic animals. It is located on either side of the spine in a depression at the tip of the third thoracic vertebra. Apply a back-and-forth motion on the points inside the shoulder blades.
SP6: Spleen 6, known as 'Three Yin Junction,' tonifies the yin and blood of the body. It is located just behind the tibia bone on the inner side of the hind leg below the start of the Achilles tendon. Apply gentle pressure for 30 seconds.
ST36: Stomach 36 is located on the outer back leg, just below the knee in a depression where the lower leg (tibia) joins the knee. Stimulating this point can help strengthen the qi and hind legs, which can weaken in diabetes, and relieve exhaustion.
Syzygium Jambolanum 6C is the only remedy known to help with diabetes, but only in conjunction with conventional therapy and vet guidance. Human preparations are available online, but no dosages for pets have been documented.
Tips for living with a diabetic pet
• Monitor your pet daily to check for signs of diabetic coma, shock and ketosis.
• Always store insulin in the fridge and keep an eye on the expiration date.
• Use the right disposable syringes for the type of insulin you need. Check with your vet.
• Contact your vet immediately if your pet's symptoms worsen or she loses weight.
• Keep a source of concentrated glucose, like honey or sugar cubes, handy in case your pet becomes unsteady or too quiet—signs of low blood sugar, a result of too much insulin.
• Avoid making drastic changes to your pet's environment, food or exercise regime.
Canine/Feline Nature's Own Hotpot
8 oz (230 g) free-range ground turkey or chicken or chicken breast meat
1 large carrot, grated
1 handful French green beans, cut small
1 medium potato, diced
1 handful frozen peas*
2 cabbage leaves, shredded
1) Place all ingredients in a large pan and add enough water to cover.
2) Bring to a boil, then gently simmer for 30 minutes until most of the liquid has been absorbed (top up the pan with water if it starts to dry out). Allow mixture to cool.
3) Refrigerate for up to three days, or freeze for up to one month.
*Frozen peas are a wonderful freezer food and a source of protein, vitamins B, C and K, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, carotenes and folate. Add a handful of peas to any hot pot recipe at the cooking stage, to bulk out the fiber. Dogs and cats alike love lightly cooked peas.
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com