What is diabetes?
Diabetes (or diabetes mellitus to give it it’s full title) refers to a disorder of metabolism that is characterized by chronic high blood sugar levels. Carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism (processing) are all affected. This is due to problems with the secretion or action of insulin – or both.
Is diabetes common in rats?
Diabetes is said to be rare in rats, however, since stating online that I have owned a diabetic rat I have received a number of enquiries from others whose rats have been diagnosed as diabetic. I wonder if the incidence is higher than previously thought (it is possible that rats previously went undiagnosed), or if the number of cases is increasing. Since diabetes is closely linked to diet and weight – as well as significant genetic influences – it could be that more rats will suffer from diabetes as a result of the trend to overfeed them, especially during their adult life. Diabetes can also be caused by steroid use, which is becoming more common in the treatment of rats.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms may be mild and present for a long time before they become severe enough to seek a diagnosis. They may include excessive drinking, excessive urinating and weight loss despite a good appetite. Occasionally, severe ketoacidosis may develop and lead to falling levels of consciousness, coma and, without effective treatment, death. As the disease progresses there are many other symptoms related to the effects of diabetes on the rat’s body (see What are the long term effects of the disease?) Many people find that weighing their rats regularly helps them to identify changes which can help in spotting signs of illness (not just diabetes) quickly.
How is it diagnosed?
The easiest and quickest way to make a diagnosis is to get a urine sample. This can be done quite simply in a diabetic rat because the wee so much! Make sure the rat is well hydrated and then place in a clean show tank without any litter or bedding. Watch. Very soon the rat will pass urine. At this point remove the rat and collect the sample in a small clean container or syringe. This can then be tested by a vet for the presence of ketones and glucose, which indicate diabetes. However, false negatives mean that it is wise to also do a fasting blood sugar test (after 4-5 hours of no food) if diabetes is suspected. This is simply taking a drop of the rat’s blood and placing it on a test strip, which will then record the amount of glucose present. The single drop of blood needed for a blood test can be obtained by cutting a nail tip ever so slightly short, or making a tiny nick in the very tip of the rat’s tail. These can be mildly unpleasant procedures – and should be kept for times when it is necessary – such as diagnosis or when insulin is being given.
Can anything be done to help a diabetic rat?
Treatment falls into two parts. Managing the diabetes and treating the long-term effects should they occur. I will look at the long-term effects in more detail later. In most cases diabetes will be diagnosed in the adult rat. From what I have seen this is often a rat who has been a big kitten and a thriving (sometimes overweight) adult. Then, whilst maintaining appetite and food intake they begin to lose weight, whilst water intake will be increased – usually significantly – up to 4 or 5 times the usual amount an adult rat would drink (20-30ml/24 hours). As drinking increases so does urination and bedding will become soiled more quickly and possibly have a rather sticky quality.
Once diagnosed, a rat with diabetes should generally be managed conservatively with diet (see below). Treating a very unstable rat with insulin should be seen as a last resort because of the problems related to ensuring that a rat eats a certain amount at a certain time. Insulin overdose can itself cause coma and death, so this treatment should not be undertaken lightly. Usually a rat with type 2 diabetes (maturity onset) will not need insulin except perhaps in the latter stages of the illness.
Monitoring urinary glucose levels (dipstick testing of urine) is non-invasive and easy to do at home. However it is not as accurate as checking blood sugar levels. On the whole a rat can be managed without too much monitoring by treating the symptoms and responding to any deterioration in the overall condition.
What kind of diet does a rat with diabetes need?
In order to stabilise the blood glucose as much as possible the diet should be high in unrefined carbohydrates and fibre. All refined carbohydrates and sugary treats should be avoided, and fruit given sparingly. I used the following diet successfully with my diabetic rat for many months as the only treatment.
- Basefood – a high fibre rabbit muelsi or whole grain straights mix (such as Rat Rations no. 7) (6 cups*)
- Dog kibble – Burns high oats kibble (recommended for diabetic dogs because it has low levels of rapid glucose- releasing carbohydrates) (1 cup)
- Shredded wheat (1 cup)
- Wholemeal pasta (half a cup)
- Whole puffed grain (1 cup)
- Seeds like hemp, linseed and pumpkin (half a cup)
- Rabbit herbs
This diet is entirely suitable for any other adult rats who share the cage with the diabetic rat.
What kinds of treats are suitable for a rat with diabetes?
Adult diabetic rats can be given nutritious low carbohydrate treats, or treats with low levels of rapid glucose- releasing carbohydrates such as kale, spring greens, broccoli, carrot, pulses, nuts, whole grain pasta/bread/rice. Small amounts of protein foods (oily fish, chicken, egg) are fine, in line with a healthy diet for any adult rat.
Are there any supplements that might help?
There are definitely a few supplements that are worth trying as there is some evidence that they might be useful in helping to maintain healthy glucose metabolism.
Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) – this is a chemical that is similar to a vitamin. It is an antioxidant; a substance that prevents cell damage. There have been studies in animals and people that have suggested beneficial effects, such as increased glucose uptake in muscle, sensitivity of the body to insulin and reduced diabetic neuropathy. Dose approximately 80mg daily.
Biotin – increases the activity of the enzyme glucokinase. This enzyme is responsible for the first step of glucose use within the body. Supplements of biotin may cause a fall in blood glucose levels in diabetics. Dose approximately 1.6mg daily.
Chromium – may improve glucose tolerance, lower fasting glucose levels, decrease insulin levels. Brewers yeast contains high levels of chromium or you can buy chromium as a supplement. Dose approximately 5 to 20 micrograms daily.
Coenzyme Q10 – a compound that occurs naturally in the body, and may be able to help with carbohydrate metabolism. It is has been proven that animals suffering from diabetes are often coenzyme Q10 deficient. Research to date shows that coenzyme Q10 supplementation may lower blood sugar levels. Dose approximately 6 to 15mg daily.
Fenugreek – in animal and several small, human trials, fenugreek seeds have been found to lower fasting serum glucose levels, both acutely and chronically. It is easiest to give in powdered form. Holland and Barret sell a powder in capsule form, but the capsules can be opened to release the powder. Dose half to two thirds of one 610mg capsule daily.
Magnesium and manganese – diabetics are commonly deficient in these minerals, both of which directly influence glucose metabolism. Human diabetics supplementing with magnesium have even sometimes been able to reduce their dose of insulin. Dose approximately 0.2 to 0.5mg manganese and 30 to 40mg of magnesium daily. Both minerals are included in a wide-ranging multivitamin and mineral supplement like Dr Squiggles.
Zinc – thought to be crucial to insulin metabolism. Can be lost in increased urination so supplementation is recommended. Also in Dr Squiggles.
NB. All doses quoted here are based on a tenth of the human dose. Although the daily amounts are quoted, because of the ongoing nature of metabolism it is wise to split the daily dose into at least two or three smaller doses across the day.
Does exercise make a difference?
Definitely. Exercise aids glucose metabolism by increasing sensitivity to insulin and also reduces body fat. By far the best was to ‘exercise’ a rat is to house it in an appropriately large cage with good climbing opportunities (i.e. beds and levels in the roof of the cage), and then remove all ramps so that the rats have to move form level to level by climbing. This involves far more exertion than ambling up ramps and ladders. Lots of stimulating ‘out-time’ should also be provided which should include the opportunity for the rat to climb, run and /or stair climb. Many people say that they find it hard to get male rats to move. I used to think this was a male trait, but it may be partly due to the fact that many male rats are overweight and unfit, and therefore find it more difficult to remain active. Since not using cage ramps, and making an effort not to overfeed my own rats I have noticed that the bucks are much more active and energetic when out of the cage. Keeping our rats slim, fit and active has a major role to place in the prevention of many diseases.
What if I need to give insulin?
Insulin is injected using a very fine needle and is an almost painless treatment. If your rat needs to be given insulin you will be taught how to do these injections at home. It is given just under the skin usually around the neck or flanks of the rat. Starting dosage is recommended as one unit of U40 strength, or 0.01 ml, per 50 grams of body weight. If U40 strength is unavailable, U100 can be diluted to the appropriate strength by one's vet. Dosage may be increased to as much as 2 units per 50 grams of body weight. Some blood monitoring will be needed to establish the right dose for an individual rat. The injection should be given in the evening just before feeding time. There may also be oral medications that your vet is willing to prescribe for your rat, which will stimulate the utilisation of insulin. It is always worth asking.
What are the long-term effects of the disease?
These include blindness, kidney disease that may lead to renal failure, neuropathy (disease of the nervous system), abscesses and other infections (lowered immunity), increased risk of stroke and heart disease. Blindness – blindness has little effect on the well being of your rat, and many pink eyed varieties have severe visual impairment as a matter of course.
Kidney disease and renal failure – this should always be seen as a risk for rats (especially males) with diabetes. It might be wise to move towards adding Ipakitine to the rat’s food as he ages. It is impossible to feed a diet that perfectly suits diabetes and perfectly suits kidney failure at the same time, as the two are very different. Since diet is the most viable method of keeping the diabetes under control, this should not be compromised by giving lots of refined carbohydrates. It is probably better to use Ipakitine to bind phosphates and reduce blood urea levels, but this can be discussed with your vet.
Neuropathy – diabetic rats have been shown to very quickly develop reduced nerve conduction velocity (the speed at which nervous impulses move in the body) and a loss of sensitivity (reduced nervous sensation). This can lead them to become clumsy and at the same time more susceptible to damage especially of the feet and tail. Wounds can quickly become infected and circulation tends to be poor so healing is slow. Other symptoms like itching, tingling and numbness can cause the rat to shake its paws vigorously, drop food, and chew at its toes and fingers. The tail, hands and feet of a diabetic rat should be inspected regularly for wounds, and treated swiftly should any damage occur. Oral antibiotics, antibiotic creams and other medicinal creams such as bee propolis all have a role to play in keeping infection at bay.
Infection, lowered immunity – individual infection should be treated as they occur, but the immune system can be boosted by good quality diet, fresh foods, antioxidants (like vitamin E and C) and fresh garlic. For more information about boosting immunity through diet try doing an internet search.
Heart disease and stroke – this (or kidney failure) may well be the eventual cause of death in a diabetic rat rather than the diabetes itself being out of control. The treatment of cardiovascular disease in rats is a whole other article, and there is excellent information available in the current Rat Health booklet by Debbie Ducommun.
Are there any other special considerations for diabetic rats?
Whenever a diabetic rat is in a situation where he cannot drink he will become dehydrated very quickly. This might include travelling, respiratory infections and lack of access to water. The rat will become cold, drowsy and seem very sick, but may quickly be revived with syringed oral fluids. Water with something like Dr Squiggles PolyAid is excellent for this. Make it fairly dilute as the rat’s main need is water. If a sick, diabetic rat refuses oral fluids they will need subcutaneous fluids as a matter of urgency if they are to survive.
Author: Alison Campbell