Testing for Low Blood Sugar
What might be causing my pet’s low blood sugar?
Low blood sugar (glucose), is called hypoglycemia (hypo = low + glyc = sugar + emia = in the blood). Hypoglycemia is caused by many different conditions and some of them are quite serious. A few examples include:
- Severe liver disease
- Hypoadrenocorticism (Addison's disease)
- Severe bacterial infection (sepsis)
- Inadequate nutrition in kittens
- Over-treatment (too much insulin) of diabetes mellitus (also called sugar diabetes)
- Some types of tumors, especially a tumor of the pancreas, called an islet cell tumor or insulinoma
What are the signs of low blood sugar?
The typical signs of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) include weakness, collapse, tremors, and sometimes seizures.
Can a laboratory result showing low blood sugar sometimes be wrong?
Yes. If a blood sample is not handled properly after collection, glucose can be lost from the sample and the test result may be falsely low. This “sampling error” occurs because red blood cells naturally consume glucose, and they continue to use glucose even in a collected blood sample if steps aren’t taken to prevent this. If a pet is healthy and has no signs of hypoglycemia (weakness, collapse etc.) a laboratory report showing low blood glucose value may be inaccurate due to sampling error. The blood glucose test should be repeated using a fresh blood sample. If the repeated glucose value is normal and the pet still has no signs of hypoglycemia, then the initial value was likely incorrect and no further investigation is needed.
How do we determine the cause of a pet’s low blood sugar?
Finding the cause of a pet’s low blood sugar usually starts with a complete history and physical examination. A pet’s “history” of illness includes details about changes in activity or attitude, appetite and water intake, bowel function and urine output, or other changes an owner may have noted. If a pet is receiving insulin injections for diabetes, the history would also include any problems an owner might be having in giving the injections.
Physical examination involves checking over the entire pet, listening to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope, and palpating the abdomen (gently squeezing or prodding the abdomen with the fingertips to identify abnormalities inside the body). A complete physical examination may give clues about the cause of low blood sugar. For example, the presence of jaundiced (yellow) gums suggests underlying liver disease; the presence of a fever might indicate an underlying infection; the presence of an abdominal mass could signal a tumor, and so on.
History and physical examination are very important, but further testing will likely be necessary and your veterinarian may recommend doing screening tests. These are a series of simple tests that provide information about the overall health of the pet and may provide further clues about the underlying problem. These include: CBC (complete blood count), serum biochemistry profile, and urinalysis. Based on the results of these screening tests, additional specific tests may be recommended.
What might the screening tests indicate?
Complete Blood Count (CBC)
This is a simple blood test that provides information about the different cell types in blood. These include red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues, white blood cells, which fight infection and respond to inflammation, and platelets, which help the blood to clot. The CBC provides details about the number, size and shape of the various cells types, and identifies the presence of abnormal cells in circulation.
In a pet with hypoglycemia, examples of changes seen on a CBC could include:
- Anemia. This means the number of red blood cells and the amount of hemoglobin in the blood are lower than normal. Anemia can be found with many diseases, including those causing hypoglycemia (e.g. Addison's disease, liver disease, or cancer).
- High numbers of white blood cells with increased proportion of immature white blood cells. This is a sign of severe underlying infection, and can be associated with hypoglycemia.
- Unusual pattern of white blood cells. The presence of high numbers of both lymphocytes and eosinophils (types of white blood cells) in a blood sample is unusual and could be a sign of underlying Addison’s disease, which is associated with hypoglycemia.
Serum biochemistry profile
Serum biochemistry profile refers to the chemical analysis of serum (the liquid part of blood). There are many substances in serum, including proteins, enzymes, fats, sugars, hormones, electrolytes etc. Measuring the levels of the various substances in the blood provides information about the health of the body’s organs and tissues including the liver, kidney, and pancreas, and helps to detect diabetes.
In a pet with hypoglycemia, examples of changes seen on a serum biochemistry profile could include:
- Abnormally high levels of the liver-related enzymes alanine aminotransferase (ALT), alkaline phosphatase (ALP), and gamma glutamyltransferase (GGT). These changes are associated with liver damage and might explain a pet’s hypoglycemia.
- Low glucose, together with low cholesterol, low albumin (a blood protein), and low urea (a product of protein metabolism). This combination of abnormalities suggests severe, chronic liver disease, as well as portosystemic shunts in puppies.
- Altered electrolytes. Electrolytes are salts and minerals found in the blood. Changes in electrolytes, especially sodium and potassium, are often seen with Addison's disease, which can cause hypoglycemia.
A urinalysis tests the chemical and physical characteristics of urine. Urinalysis is important in any sick animal, and is necessary for the proper interpretation of the serum biochemistry profile, especially in a pet that has kidney disease or diabetes.
In a pet with hypoglycemia, examples of changes seen on urinalysis could include:
- Specific crystals called ammonium biurate crystals. These are strongly associated with portosystemic shunts in puppies.
- Large numbers of white blood cells and white blood cell casts (tubular-shaped clusters of white blood cells). These suggest serious underlying bacterial infection of the kidneys.
- Large amounts of glucose. In a pet known to have sugar diabetes or diabetes mellitus, the presence of large amounts of glucose in the urine suggest the disease is poorly controlled.
What if all the tests results are normal except for low blood sugar?
If the serum biochemistry profile confirms a pet has low blood glucose, and no other abnormalities can be found, then the hypoglycemia may be due to an underlying tumor called an insulinoma. This is a tumor of the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas and causes excessive amounts of insulin to be released into the blood stream. Insulin is the hormone responsible for removing glucose from the blood.
In a pet with an insulinoma, the excess insulin causes too much glucose to be removed from the blood and blood glucose levels fall dangerously low. Affected animals show clear signs of hypoglycemia, including seizures.
What additional tests might be recommended in a pet with hypoglycemia?
There are several additional tests that might be recommended depending on the results of a pet’s history, physical examination and screening tests.
Examples of more advanced tests would include:
- Serum bile acid testing. If either liver disease or a portosystemic shunt is suspected then measurement of serum bile acids would be recommended.
- X-rays and ultrasound. These imaging studies would be used to assess the liver and other abdominal organs, especially if liver disease, insulinoma, or other tumors are suspected.
- Biopsy followed by microscopic examination would be recommended if a tumor or abnormal organ was found on imaging. The biopsy might be collected by fine needle aspiration, ultrasound-guided biopsy or surgical intra-operative biopsy.
- ACTH stimulation test would be recommended if Addison's disease is suspected.
- Blood culture would be recommended if widespread bacterial infection (sepsis) is suspected. Blood culture confirms the presence of bacteria in the blood stream and determines which antibiotic should to used treat the infection.
- Blood insulin:glucose ratio. The simultaneous measurement of blood insulin and blood glucose levels may help to confirm the presence of an insulinoma. Finding too much insulin in the blood of an animal that is truly hypoglycemic is strong evidence of underlying insulinoma. Typically, imaging studies and possibly biopsy would be recommended to confirm the diagnosis.
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