Did you know that cats can get diabetes? The unfortunate truth is that feline diabetes is on the rise. We are seeing many more cases of diabetes than we did previously. In fact, in the Banfield Pet Hospital State of Pet Health 2011 report, a 16 percent increase in the number of feline diabetes cases since 2006 was noted.

What causes diabetes in cats? Just as in people, diabetes is a disease of the pancreas. Insulin is not produced in large enough quantities to lower the blood glucose (sugar) levels, leading to hyperglycemia (high blood sugar). When the blood sugar levels become too high, the situation becomes dangerous and often life-threatening for the cat.

Obesity is one of the major risk factors for diabetes. Cats that are overweight are much more likely to suffer from diabetes than those that are kept lean. Unfortunately, obesity has also become an epidemic among our cats, with over 50 percent of the cats seen in veterinary hospitals found to be either overweight or obese.

There is a great deal of controversy about what type of food constitutes the best diet for a cat. Some veterinarians and nutrition experts advocate a high protein, low carbohydrate diet as the best option. Though feeding a high protein, low carbohydrate diet has not been shown to prevent diabetes from occurring, there is little doubt that these types of diets are the food of choice for cats that are diabetic.

Some cats that develop diabetes can go into "remission" when fed a proper diet and with effective control of blood glucose levels early in the course of the disease. This is a good reason to pursue regular veterinary examinations for your cat. Early diagnosis is key. If the disease is diagnosed later in its course, when the cells in the pancreas have been "burned out" by chronically unregulated blood glucose levels, remission is much less likely and your cat is likely to require insulin injections for the rest of his life.

The most common symptoms of diabetes in cats are increased thirst, increased urine volume, increased appetite, and weight loss. Some diabetic cats will also develop what is known as a diabetic neuropathy that results in a flat-footed stance or gait. Unlike dogs, who commonly develop cataracts as a result of diabetes, cats rarely develop diabetic cataracts.

Diabetes is usually diagnosed through blood and urine testing. An elevated blood glucose level may increase your veterinarian’s suspicion that your cat has diabetes. However, sometimes elevated blood glucose levels can have causes other than diabetes. So your veterinarian may need to run additional blood tests if your cat has persistently elevated blood glucose levels or has glucose in his urine. A specialized test known as a fructosamine level can provide more information about your cat’s glucose regulation; providing what amounts to an average blood glucose level for the past few weeks. This test is more reliable in diagnosing diabetes than a single blood glucose reading.

Likewise, monitoring the response of cats being treated for diabetes usually involves performing a blood glucose curve (a series of blood glucose readings taken over a 12- to 24-hour period), measuring a fructosamine level, or both. Single blood glucose readings are not helpful in determining whether insulin dosages need to be adjusted.

Dr. Lorie Huston

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