Since November is National Diabetes Awareness Month, it seems a good time to talk about diabetes in cats. Yes, cats get diabetes too … quite often.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas, the organ that helps to regulate your cat’s blood glucose (sugar) level by secreting insulin. In diabetes, either the pancreas is unable to produce insulin or there is an increased resistance to insulin that causes a relative shortage of the hormone even though the pancreas is still able to produce it.
There are two types of diabetes that are commonly seen in animals: insulin dependent (or type 1) diabetes, or non-insulin dependent (or type 2) diabetes. In cats, most cases of diabetes start out as type 2 diabetes.
In most cases, insulin injections will be necessary to control the elevated glucose levels, although, in some cats, oral hypoglycemic medications might be an acceptable alternative. You’ll need to work with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action.
However, insulin or other hypoglycemic medications may not need to be permanent for some cats. If the disease is diagnosed earlier enough, it is quite possible, with aggressive treatment to normalize blood glucose levels, for your cat to enter remission and no longer need to receive insulin or other medications. Unfortunately, if your cat has been diabetic for a significant time, the cells in the pancreas may be overworked and become unable to secrete insulin any longer. These cases will require life-long therapy, likely twice-daily insulin injections.
What are the Signs of Diabetes?
The classic symptoms are increased thirst, increased urine volume, a ravenous appetite, and weight loss (despite the ravenous appetite). As the disease progresses, your cat may suffer more serious illness, including loss of appetite and muscle weakness. Some diabetic cats develop an abnormal flat-footed stance as a result of diabetes. Cataracts are frequently seen in diabetic dogs but rarely occur in cats.
What’s the Best Way to Prevent Diabetes?
While genetics may play a role in the development of diabetes in some cats, there is a way to prevent many cats from getting diabetes. How? Don’t overfeed your cat. Obesity is one of the largest contributing factors for those cats that do develop diabetes. Keeping your cat lean will help keep your cat healthy. The other significant contributing factor is, in many ways related. Cats that lead inactive lifestyles are more likely to develop diabetes compared to those that are active.
Regular veterinary examinations and blood screens are extremely useful in picking up early diabetes, making the chances of successfully treating a diabetic cat more likely.
What Should a Diabetic Cat be Fed?
The answer to that question will depend on the individual cat. High protein low carbohydrate diets are commonly used and are effective in controlling the disease in many cats. Feeding such a diet can increase the chances of a remission. However, this diet is not the only diet that is effective in leveling blood glucose levels and may even be contradicted in cats that have concurrent illnesses.
In the end, each cat is an individual and must be treated as such. What works for one cat may or may not work for another. The best approach is to have your cat examined at least once yearly, twice yearly for older cats. If your cat proves to be diabetic when examined, your veterinarian will work with you to find the most effective treatment, including the best diet for your cat.
Dr. Lorie Huston