A new obesity epidemic is rising, and it's not in children or adults -- the epidemic is striking animal companions.
Obese and overweight pets are at greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. In a country where 50 percent of adults are overweight, and one in five is considered obese, the nation's pets are also at risk.
"We are seeing the increase, just like in humans," says Marty Becker, a practicing veterinarian and founder of the Web site petconnection.com. "Some pets have too much food in their mouths, and not enough miles on their feet.
"Fifty-seven percent of American pets are overweight or obese, and they are at serious risk."
Becker says that certain breeds of dogs, including Samoyeds, Keeshonds, Schnauzers Miniature Pinschers and Poodles, have an increased risk of developing diabetes.
"It's one of the chronic conditions we really see a lot," he says. "Diabetes generally develops in middle-aged to older dogs, around seven to nine years old."
About one in every 400 to 500 dogs will develop diabetes, but in felines the danger is much higher; nearly one in 200 will develop the illness, according to Monica Mansfield, a practicing vet and public relations chair of the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association.
Ninety percent of these diabetic cats have a form similar to Type 2 diabetes in humans -- the kind that is associated with obesity and lack of good diet and exercise.
"I've seen cats overindulge for twenty years," she says. "Some people bring in their animals, one pound heavier every year -- those get to be some big cats."
As with humans, pets can develop warning signs when they are on the path to developing diabetes. Excessive water drinking and urination are two red-flag signs, as well as pets that develop a bony appearance even though they have a huge appetite.
Animals with diabetes must receive insulin, as the hormone is not created in sufficient amounts in cells of the pancreas. Some cats can tolerate oral insulin in pill form, but most diabetic cats and dogs must receive daily injections.
"The most important thing pet owners can do is keep their animals' weight under control," says Mansfield. "It's such an important measure. Even though most diabetic pets have a normal lifespan, it's much easier on the animal not to ever develop diabetes."
Becker agrees. "There are special weight management food formulas out there now for dogs," he says. "Animals at risk need high levels of fiber and regular exercise."
For cats, Mansfield recommends feeding a measured amount of food, rather than letting cats "free-feed," which can lead to kitty gluttony.
"The common idea is that cats know when to stop eating, but that doesn't seem to be the case," she says.
Veterinarians stress that diabetes in dogs and cats is not a death sentence.
"A diabetic animal can live a long life, with proper treatment," says Mansfield. After a blood and urine test confirming a diagnosis of diabetes, the treatment can begin.
Caring for a diabetic animal takes a little extra time and attention, and can be costly; treatment costs between $50 and $100 per month.
And for squeamish owners, the new routine may also represent a challenging adjustment -- at first, anyway.
"Some owners have a hard time thinking about giving their animals daily shots," says Becker. "But once we demonstrate it for them, and show them that the needle is just about the size of an acupuncture needle, most people are okay with it."
But though giving shots can be a daunting task, preventing diabetes in pets -- mainly through convincing people that overfeeding animals does more harm than good -- can be even more difficult, Becker says.
"People equate food with love, especially when it comes to their pets," he says.