What do you call a koala who is too sweet for its own good? Diabetic


– The 14-pound patient with the deep-pile complexion was lethargic, kept drinking a lot of water, and had a glucose level in the range of 600-700 mg/dL. He was nearly comatose by the time medical staff transferred him to a specialized facility.

Quincy, a koala with diabetes at the San Diego Zoo, wears a continuous glucose monitor. Courtesy San Diego Zoo

Quincy, a koala with diabetes at the San Diego Zoo, wears a continuous glucose monitor.

The diagnosis: Diabetes. The treatment: Insulin. But multiple daily skin pricks were quite a challenge for Quincy the koala. After all, he requires up to 22 hours of shut-eye each day.

What to do? The veterinary staff at the San Diego Zoo turned to the experts – an endocrinologist and a manufacturer of continuous glucose monitors. Now, Quincy has his own CGM, and a medical team that is tracking his glucose levels in real time on their smartphones.

In fact, Athena Philis-Tsimikas, MD, of the Scripps Whittier Diabetes Institute, pulls out her phone and checks on him at least a couple times a day. She also gets alerts if his blood sugar drops too quickly.

“He is definitely another one of my patients,” she said in an interview. But he’s the only one who lives in trees and enjoys a nice eucalyptus smoothie.

Humans are hardly the only mammals who get diabetes

Veterinarians are quite familiar with diabetes. A wide variety of mammals from pigs and apes to horses and dolphins can develop an equivalent of the human condition. Dogs may be prescribed daily insulin shots, and cats even develop peripheral neuropathy and retinopathy like humans with diabetes.

So it’s not entirely surprising that a team at the Los Angeles Zoo diagnosed Quincy, a 3-year-old Queensland koala, with diabetes.

Quincy’s glucose levels should have been around 80-130 mg/dL, similar to the ideal levels in humans, said San Diego Zoo senior veterinarian Cora Singleton, DVM, in an interview. But tests prompted by his symptoms showed his levels were high, she said, and they stayed that way. According to her, that suggested he wasn’t just having a one-time elevation that animals can experience when they’re stressed.

Unfortunately, there are only a few scattered reports of diabetes in koalas, and “there’s not anything documented about treating a koala over a long term,” Dr. Singleton said. “We’re in uncharted territory here.”

So the Los Angeles Zoo sent Quincy down the California coast for more specialized treatment. The San Diego Zoo’s veterinary staff took in Quincy and treated him with glucose tests and insulin shots, Dr. Singleton said. “But we were looking a way for to get more information with less disturbance to Quincy.”

Someone mentioned the idea of a sensor. “We thought, ‘What a great idea,’” Dr. Singleton said. “It would be a way for us to get a lot of information and find out how his highs and lows are related.”

That’s when the team turned to local endocrinologist Dr. Tsimikas for a helping hand.

The key to koala calming: Eucalyptus smoothies

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