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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Diabetes Risk in Young Overweight Cats

Most veterinarians and cat owners are well aware of the risk of diabetes in overweight or obese cats as they age. New research suggests that the overweight or obese condition in cats less than a year of age also experience insulin resistance that may pose a predisposition to the development of diabetes later in life.

Insulin resistance and the association of future risk of developing diabetes have been heavily researched in obese children. The link to diabetes and cardiovascular disease in this same group has also been heavily researched. Those findings have sparked the present campaigns to influence nutrition and activity behaviors in children to prevent these outcomes in later life.

As with children, perhaps obesity prevention and weight management early in life should have an equal or greater focus for veterinarians and cat owners than simply dealing with the 10-year-old fat cat.

New Research in Feline Diabetes

Researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland analyzed insulin sensitivity and body condition score (BCS) on the 9-point scale in a population of sexually intact cats from 3 to 8 months of age. Insulin sensitivity in animals is tested the same way it is in humans: by means of a glucose tolerance test. By challenging a subject with a glucose load, periodic glucose blood levels measure the amount of glucose moving from the bloodstream into the body cells. Since glucose can only penetrate the cell wall with the aid of insulin, changes in blood glucose levels reflects the activity of cell membrane receptors to recognize and respond to insulin. In other words, it demonstrates cellular insulin sensitivity. In diabetics, insulin sensitivity is significantly decreased and circulating glucose levels remain high.

In addition to assigning a weight phenotype (overweight vs. lean) to BCS scores, dual energy X-ray absorptiometry of DEXA (considered the gold standard) documented the percentage of body fat for each subject.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that overweight cats of both sexes, defined by BCS or DEXA, had decreased insulin sensitivity by eight months of age as compared to lean cats of both sexes. As in children, the body of overweight or obese cats establishes early "programing" toward the development of diabetes. Notice that these were sexually intact cats that are not typically thought of as prone to diabetes. Most pets are sexually altered, which we know is a predisposing factor to obesity, making them more prone to these early changes.

Prevention Trumps Intervention for Feline Diabetes

Those of you who follow my posts know why successful dieting in cats is very difficult, especially in multi-cat households. Prevention is better than intervention after the fact.

Owners need to work with their veterinarians on nutritional strategies much earlier than is presently common — the initial kitten exam would be ideal. Cat owners need to re-think feeding behavior and institute multiple feedings, with hard-to-get-to stations and limited amounts of calories at much younger ages. Play behavior with laser lights and feather toys should become standard daily activities starting during "kittenhood" and continued throughout life.

Remember that preventing obesity not only reduces the risk of diabetes but also reduces the risks for cancer, osteoarthritis, kidney disease, cardiac and lung disease, chronic pancreatitis, and other inflammatory diseases.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Kletr / via Shutterstock

Comments  6

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  • Fat Cats
    01/24/2013 11:30pm

    "successful dieting in cats is very difficult, especially in multi-cat households."

    Truer words have probably never been spoken.

    It's especially difficult when a majority of the herd is slim and svelte.

    I confess that there's a human emotional element to this, too. Personally, I find it impossible to cut back on food for a kitty that has known hunger from being abandoned or tossed outside to be on their own.

    The kitties that have been part of my household who remembered a previous hard life were always frantic about having food available. Most have always kept (what I call) The Stray Mentality about food.

  • Fat Cats die young
    01/27/2013 12:03am

    It's unfortunate that vets don't provide owners with the essential information regarding their fat cat - stop feeding it dry food. While some cats can tolerate dry food and not become obese, in many if not most cases dry food (cereal) simply doesn't trigger satiation or "fullness", so they keep eating. Canned or raw food is the right diet for cats. It prevents the development of obesity, diabetes, kidney disease, and a wide variety of life-shortening illnesses in cats.

  • type of food in study
    01/27/2013 04:59pm

    I was very intrested to read that the cats in this study where entire. I also agree so much that DM is a preventable cond, so often vets say it is a treatable cond, but why do cats need to contract it in the first place. Would like to know what type of food the cats in the research where fed. The RVCS ( in the UK) have admitted to me ( after six years of me pushing them)that there is a known link between dry food and feline DM and yet their vets still sell it to owners without telling them this. Would like to know if Dr Tuder considers there is a link thank you.

  • Linda Joyce-jones
    01/29/2013 05:18pm

    The development of diabetes is multi-factorial. Research suggests that sexual neutering is a risk factor for weight gain and hence the development of diabetes. Diabetes researchers often use intact animals to control for this experimental variable.
    The cats were fed a commercial dry diet.
    Despite what your were told be the RVCS, there is presently no published evidence that has established a direct cause and effect relationship between high carboydrates or dry diets and diabetes. Dry food diets allows free freeding and less control of caloric intake. It is more likely that the calories are the problem, not the carboydrates.
    Dr. T

  • 03/20/2013 03:41am

    I beg to differ, Dr. Tudor. While prevention is certainly better, diabetes in cats is largely "curable". Our friend's cat is only one example of many. He became diabetic eating the recommended amount of weight loss prescription kibble. He became weak, had difficulty getting up and down stairs to his litter box, and started urinating and defecating on the floor. They were going to have him put down but gave him to my family instead.

    We had his labs done and confirmed he was diabetic. I started home testing his BG and was fortunate to be able to consult with a veterinary professional who helped us treat the cat using the tight regulation protocol, using small amounts of long-acting insulin together with weighed amounts of non-prescription low carb canned food; I calculated he needed about 15 calories per lb. of body weight to maintain his weight - he was not the obese 28 pounds he was listed as in his records. We were able to get him into remission (off insulin) in six days. He is a large-framed cat, now healthy at 14 pounds, and has regained his strength and zest for life. Counter surfing is his new favorite hobby.

    My current vet said most vets don't know how to achieve diabetic remissions. I wonder if it's because they are recommending prescription diabetic foods (they are too high in carbohydrates)?

    It is not necessary to feed cats prescription food to get them to successfully lose weight. You must be ignoring the estimated caloric ratio of the mouse*. And feeding a controlled amount of low carb canned food in a multi, multi cat home is absolutely doable, even twice a day, so don't make it sound so difficult. It's like you are purposefully underestimating cat owners and making feeding sound more complicated that it has to be in order to make them feel they "must" consult a vet; there is really little natural baseline nutrition info vets have to start with.

    Educated cat owners who understand how detrimental kibble is are disgusted at the obvious conflict of interest that vets display. Do most people even know that 'Prescription Diet’ is a trademarked term used as a marketing tool? Kudos to those vets who have kicked all feline kibble to the curb and refuse to sell it anymore.

    Kibble for cats is extremely unhealthy and I question the true value of this "study". I feel sorry for the poor cats and think it's analogous to feeding children nothing but dry fortified cereal and a glass of water without any fresh food. Unacceptable.

    It sickens me to think how many cats out there are made diabetic with species inappropriate, high carbohydrate, water-depleted "foods", especially the stuff that is sold by vets at premium prices. The cats pay the ultimate price when they are killed or maintained in an unnecessary and unhealthy diabetic state and the other diseases associated. Consumer protection laws are not protecting pet owners from this unethical practice. It needs to stop.

    I agree with the more educated veterinary professionals and certified nutritionists that state that diabetes is largely preventable by feeding cats canned or balanced raw food that most closely resembles their natural prey. Obesity is more easily preventable with canned food that has calorie counts on it so cats are not overfed. Why isn't the vet industry supporting better labelling? That isn't even mentioned.

    *According to the Feline Nutrition Education Society, when attempting to "reverse engineer a mouse," there is not much information on what is actually in a mouse, or a cat's other natural prey species, for that matter. The information that is available is scattered or unpublished.

    Gosh, if vets are truly interested in feline nutrition, wouldn't that be an excellent thing to study! Why not go the the source of nutrition that cats evolved to eat and find out what's in their prey instead of creating and testing wildly unnatural diets with cheap ingredients for the purpose of increasing your profit margins?

    Current guesstimates are that calorie-wise, a mouse is made up of 45% protein (or more), 45% fat (or less) and 10% carbohydrate (or less). The fact the the moisture content is close to 70% is an ESSENTIAL part of the equation - cats absolutely REQUIRE moisture WITH their food in order to avoid chronic dehydration and issues related to that.

    The jig is up. All vets should declare a conflict of interest and do the right thing - stop selling kibble for cats to help prevent feline diabetes, obesity, kidney disease, and urinary tract diseases - if they TRULY care about feline health and wellness.

  • published evidence
    02/02/2013 07:07pm

    Hi Dr Tudor, thank you so much for your comments, I did think that neutering was a factor for weight gain. The problem with "evidence" is that it depends on the person or persons own aganda and who is funding the research. Yes dry food allows free feeding, put only if it is left down for tha cat there is no proof that ALL owners do this. I never did, but my cat still became overweight and then had DM. Breed can also play apart I feel, but in the past we had all these elements, and not the problems with obesity.But so many large numbers of cats where not fed dry food as they are today.

    Clearly there is a problem with pet obesity and the condtions that follow it. What is needed I feel is a prog of independent research that includes all elements and sex, breed and the like and different foods that cats are fed. the vet who told me of the link is a Officer of the RCVS and Vice pres of F.A.B. Owners should be given all the infromation, so that they can make an informed choice. Many do think dry food is the problem, we need more data. Thank you so much

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