Diabetes is a serious medical condition that is developing more and more frequently in pets, particularly in dogs and cats over the age of six. It is a debilitative disease caused by improper utilization of glucose, the body’s primary supplier of energy at a cellular level, by insulin, which is produced by the pancreas for the sole purpose of using glucose. As this disease becomes more prevalent, it is important to know why it occurs and how you can prevent it.

When your dog or cat eats carbohydrates, their body converts those carbs into sugar – glucose – which is absorbed into the bloodstream in order to be distributed to the body’s cells to provide energy. Insulin, secreted from the pancreas, essentially extracts glucose from the blood so that it can interact with cells. Diabetes is caused when glucose and insulin are not interacting properly, either because the body has become resistant to insulin or because the body does not produce enough insulin. Insulin resistance is much more common than insulin insufficiency, and is referred to as Type II Diabetes.

Type II Diabetes (referred to from here on simply as “diabetes”) is easily preventable, not easily reversible, and impossible to cure. Luckily, even if your dog or cat has already been diagnosed, they can still live a normal, healthy life. Diabetes does not have to be life threatening, especially if it is caught early on. As with all health problems, however, prevention is easier than solution, so that is what I will focus on first.

The primary causes of diabetes are both lifestyle related – obesity and inactivity. Diabetes primarily occurs in senior pets because those pets have lived with those conditions for so long. Diet also plays a huge factor, both as the primary cause of obesity and independently simply as a cause for diabetes.

When an animal is obese, they are more likely to develop diabetes because of eleveated, unhealthy levels of fatty acids and because their body is under the constant stress of inflammation, both of which cause insulin resistance. This leads inevitably to high blood sugar – too much glucose in the blood.

Inactivity often leads to diabetes because when muscle cells are not regularly exercised, they can lose their sensitivity to insulin, again leading to high blood sugar due to the body’s inability to extract glucose from the blood. Physical exercise also helps to regulate blood sugar spikes that are experienced after eating, which is key for both healthy animals and animals with diabetes already.

Food itself plays a large role in prevention and management of the disease. A diet that is high in carbs and overly processed not only causes inflammation, but directly feeds blood sugar levels, which, for an animal already diagnosed, can make a bad situation worse. When your dog or cat is constantly fed glucose, without the ability to properly use insulin, then regular insulin shots and other medicines are required. Food that is inherently carbohydrate heavy does nothing to prevent diabetes, and can make it worse, even sometimes causing it to occur.

Luckily, for animals that are not diabetic, all of these causes are entirely avoidable. Plenty of exercise, modest food portions, and a low starch, minimally processed diet are typically enough to avoid diabetes in older years. Many would say that it is unavoidable, but if you examine the causes, it is reasonable to conclude that age-related diabetes is nothing more than the results of a lifetime of poorly cultivated habits and bad nutrition. Adding in raw foods and exercising regularly are the best preventative measures against diabetes.

If your dog or cat is already diabetic, there are still ways that diet and lifestyle can help to manage and sometimes even reverse their disease. For animals that need regular insulin shots, losing weight and staying active will still help the body regulate blood sugar more effectively by helping insulin work more efficiently.

Dietary weight loss can be achieved two ways: Firstly, through strict portion control, which will only be minimally effective if the diet still relies heavily on carbs. Secondly, weight loss can be achieved through a more species appropriate diet – one that relies more on fat and protein than on carbohydrates. Years of research have shown that diabetic animals (and humans!) who use fat as their primary energy source almost always are able to reverse the effects of their diabetes.

The logic is fairly straightforward. Type II Diabetes is caused by the inability to extract glucose from the blood. Glucose is the by-product of breaking down carbohydrates. Eliminate the carbs (glucose) and you also eliminate the need for insulin. Replacing the carbs with fats will allow your animal to use ketones as its primary energy source. Ketones are the result of breaking down fat, and are released from the liver. Feeding your animal a high-fat, moderate protein, low carb diet eliminates the need for regular insulin shots, and allows its body to function optimally. Overall inflammation will decrease, as will excess weight. A high-fat diet, coupled with regular exercise, is the most effective diabetes treatment that we know of, and also the most sustainable, as the body can, and often does, become immune to certain insulin shots, just like it became immune to its own natural insulin.

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