Connections in veterinary medicine and human medicine

Externship Project

Being a veterinarian was my dream for as long as I can remember. When I was young, it seemed like it was the perfect career because I loved animals. As I made my way through high school and university I came to realize that it was not only my love of animals that was driving me to pursue a career as a veterinarian, but also my interest in biology and medicine, whether that be human medicine or animal medicine.

I think the similarities between the human and animal medical fields may take some people by surprise. Many human diseases can also be found in animals, and the diagnostic tests, the medications, and treatment therapies are also very similar. In today’s post, I want to talk about one of these common human diseases that your pet may also be at risk of…that is, diabetes mellitus.

Diabetes mellitus is a disease in which the body’s cells are not getting the glucose that they need for energy because the “lock and key mechanism” that lets glucose into the cell is not working. This “key” is a molecule called insulin, and there are receptors (much like locks on the door) that are on cells that wait for insulin to bind to them and unlock them to allow glucose to come inside the cell and provide energy.

Photo of small white dogMuch like in humans, there are two types of diabetes. Type one is most commonly seen in dogs and stems from a problem of the cells of the pancreas that are responsible for making insulin. Type two diabetes is more commonly seen in cats where there is a problem with receptors on the cell, so glucose cannot enter.  Because glucose cannot enter the body’s cells, it builds up in the blood stream and spills into the urine. The glucose in the urine attracts water into the bladder, which is the reason that we see humans and animals with diabetes needing to urinate more frequently. And because they are losing all that water in their urine, they become more thirsty.

Weight loss is commonly seen because the cells need to rely on other substances such as fat stored in the body to gain their energy. These signs are the common things that owners often recognize in their dog or cat, which prompts them to seek veterinary care….which brings us to little Abby. (Client consent was provided to include info and photos)

Abby is a very cute, spunky little dog! Her owners brought her into the clinic in February 2019 as they noticed the signs mentioned above. Diagnostic tests were run and they revealed increased levels of glucose in Abby’s blood and urine, which confirmed a diagnosis of diabetes.

To treat Abby’s diabetes, she required injections of insulin under her skin twice daily with her meals. Abby’s owners were concerned about how diabetes would impact her overall health, but after an open discussion with their veterinarian and their own research, they knew that Abby’s diabetes could be properly managed. Unfortunately, for Abby and her family, it was not smooth sailing from here.

Diabetes is a very dynamic disease, which requires frequent monitoring of blood glucose to ensure optimal control of this condition. In February 2020, Abby began to have cloudy eyes. The extra glucose in her blood was changing the integrity of the lens in her eyes and she was developing diabetic cataracts, something that Abby’s family knew they needed to monitor.

She was referred to an ophthalmologist and had her cataracts removed in June, and now has excellent eyesight.  As if this wasn’t enough, she was admitted to the Ontario Veterinary College due to pancreatitis and a bladder infection. All of these concurrent health issues were making her blood glucose numbers very difficult to control.

Photo of small dog with diabetes monitoring device Perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel for Abby was the use of the FreeStyle Libre device. This device was created in the world of human medicine and was designed to provide easy monitoring of the body’s tissue glucose. As you can see in this picture of Abby, a sensor with a small needle is placed on the back of her neck, and bandaged to help keep the device well situated.  You can then use your phone or the associated small reader device to keep track of the tissue glucose levels at any time convenient for you and your pet.

This was a big relief for Abby and her family. They found that this was able to accurately record Abby’s glucose levels in the comfort of their own home. It provides them assurance, as they are able to see the immediate effects of the insulin that they just gave and how it affects Abby’s glucose level, hopefully catching any episodes of low or high blood sugar in the early stages so that veterinary care can be sought.   

From speaking with Abby’s family, and being present in appointments with other patients that have been diagnosed with diabetes, I can tell that it is a very overwhelming time for owners. Often they are wondering if they could have done something to prevent this and they are trying to wrap their head around the logistics of giving insulin injections twice daily. It is a big change, but nothing that cannot be managed together with your veterinary team!

It is important for owners to know that once we have diagnosed this disease, we can now work together to help their pet get back on the right track. We can schedule appointments to teach the owners how to administer the insulin injections (which become as routine as brushing your teeth), and how to monitor blood glucose. Abby’s case outlined the benefits of using a monitoring device, but this may not be suitable or realistic in every case, and that is okay because there are many options that we can work through to find the best fit for you and your pet!

Today I wanted to speak briefly about using this type of monitoring device because it outlines perfectly the similarities between human medicine and veterinary medicine. We can learn so much from each other in these different fields and this is one of the many things that excites me so much about the career I have chosen.