Why Doggie Diabetes is a Risk Factor for Human Owners

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Researchers: Doggie Diabetes is a Bad Sign for Dog Owners

Bless the researchers of Uppsala University, Sweden, who are asking the important questions: if your pet has diabetes, is it more likely that you’ll develop it too?

If you’re a dog owner, the answer might be yes.

In an analysis of Swedish pet-owners and their animals, canine diabetes was seen to be such a strong indication of human diabetes risk that our intrepid scientists have suggested that it could serve as a useful early warning sign to dog owners that their own health may be at danger.

The owners of diabetic cats, on the other hand, may relax: no such association was found between cats and their owners. Feline diabetes appears to strike at random, at least from the perspective of owner health and lifestyle seems to be concerned.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, is a treasure trove of pet and pet-owner facts. (Did you know that Swedish cat owners were more likely to be well-educated, and single, than Swedish dog owners?) Using data from Sweden’s largest pet insurance company, the researchers found and tracked 175,214 dog owners (with 132,783 dogs) and 89,944 cat owners (with 84,143 cats) for up to six years.

Anyone even passingly familiar with these lovable creatures can probably guess as to what’s going on here: dogs’ behavior seems to conform to that of their owners to a much greater degree than cats’.

Perhaps the primary such example is the walk. To put it simply, dogs don’t walk themselves, and the less you walk your dog, the less exercise you both get. Our scientists guardedly put it this way: it is “plausible that dog owners and dogs share frequency and intensity of exercise and that this could potentially constitute an important underlying mechanism in our findings from owner-dog pairs.”

But cats? “One explanation for the lack of association between diabetes in a cat and an owner with type 2 diabetes could furthermore be the lower concordance between cat owner and cat physical activity.” Or as I would put it, cats exercise as much or as little as they damn well please.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than just exercise. Dog owner dietary habits also have an influence on the dogs’ diets, and overeaters may tend to be overfeeders: a previous study even showed that overweight dog owners gave their dogs treats more frequently. The availability and nutritional quality of table scraps—more often the preferred fare of dogs than cats—also must vary from one household to another.

The authors also speculated that there may be other, more esoteric connections, including “shared microbial communities” and environmental risk factors, such as air pollution and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

An earlier study, this one from the Netherlands, found that overweight people do tend to have overweight dogs. This association persisted when the dog-owner relationships were adjusted for a host of medical and demographic factors, but disappeared when the researchers considered how often the dog was walked. Feline corpulence, by contrast, had no relation to owner BMI. Cats, it would seem, fatten of their own accord.

One remarkable discovery, to me at least, is that the Type 2 diabetes connection between dog and dog-owner is actually stronger than that between one spouse and another. A 2014 study found that if one spouse has a history of diabetes, the other is 26% more likely than average to develop it. Well, that shouldn’t be surprising. Spouses tend to share a lot of things—meals, snacks, exercise habits, and so forth. But the owners of diabetic dogs were 38% more likely than owners of non-diabetic dogs to develop Type 2 diabetes, further cementing the dog’s claim to the title of “man’s best friend.”

Pet diabetes tends to be pretty much like Type 2 diabetes in humans, although it’s usually not diagnosed until it’s gotten pretty bad—the precipitating symptoms resemble those of the extreme hyperglycemia of Type 1 diabetes (excessive thirst, weight loss, and so on). Just like with people, diabetes happens more commonly among older animals and is often accompanied by obesity. Certain breeds are more likely to develop diabetes than others: condolences to the majestic Swedish Elkhound and the Russian Blue cat, among others. Much of this research was also conducted at Uppsala, which seems to have cornered the market on the subject.

Diabetes is being diagnosed in both cats and dogs much more frequently than in generations past. The data, however, seems insufficient to tell if this indicates an actual increase in the disease, a residue of our own increasingly unhealthy lifestyle, or merely improved screening.

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