What Does it Mean If a Cat is Diabetic?
Just like in humans, cats can also suffer from diabetes mellitus (DM), a serious medical problem with lifelong health implications which can also be life threatening, if left untreated.
DM manifests when the blood sugar (glucose) is too high and the ability to transfer much needed sugar into the cells is defective. As a result, the cells starve. To compensate, the body turns to the breakdown of fat as a fuel source, which is an additional complication. If left untreated, diabetic ketoacidosis—a severe condition—results.
Cats with diabetes can live a full life if they receive proper care, and the right medication in the home. That’s where you come in.
Adopting a Diabetic Cat
First off, congratulations on adopting your cat, especially a diabetic one. Cats with chronic or lifelong health conditions, such as DM, often go unnoticed in shelters or unwanted by the public. But they often make great companions and can have a relatively normal quality of life if their condition is treated and managed appropriately.
When adopting a diabetic cat, it’s important to remember this is a condition (in most cases) that your cat will have for life, and this requires more understanding and effort on your part as the pet parent. It will also have an impact on your wallet.
As most diabetic cats are middle-aged to older, there may also be other underlying health conditions that will need to be treated as well. It’s recommended that you partner with the shelter veterinarian and with your primary care veterinarian to review the cat’s medical history (if known) and determine what the first few vet visits, monthly costs, long-term care, and cost considerations will be.
For the majority of cats in a shelter situation, they have been either recently diagnosed with DM or have been treated for DM long term, and so many of the initial testing and diagnostic work-up may not need to be performed again. For cats diagnosed with DM for the first time, there is more care and testing required initially to set you up for success. This is often attributed to finding the proper type, dose, and frequency of insulin.
Prior to taking your cat to his or her forever home, keep in mind the following discussion points when working with the shelter staff:
How long has the cat been diagnosed with DM?
What type of insulin and insulin syringes are required?
Is the cat fed a specific type of diet since being in the shelter, and if so, how much and how often?
How often and how much insulin is given (the cost of insulin is variable, but expect to pay anywhere from $60-$300 for a 10mL vial).
Past medical history including any diagnostics or other treatments provided, such as urine testing and cultures, blood glucose curves, fructosamine testing, and baseline blood work.
Does its current medical history indicate cataracts or neuropathy, and does the cat suffer from chronic pancreatitis?
Is the cat well-regulated?
Does your shelter offer any in-house, low-cost testing, coupons, or discounted medical care to help with the associated costs?
Treatment Options for Diabetic Cat
Assuming the cat has been recently diagnosed at the shelter, the initial workup often includes baseline blood work and urine testing with a urine culture. Treatment with insulin should begin immediately in conjunction with a change in diet.
The first follow-up appointment is usually scheduled within a few weeks and will include an all-day stay at the veterinary office for a fructosamine test (similar to an A1C in humans) that takes an average of blood sugar over the past 2 to 3 weeks, as well as a blood glucose curve.
Blood samples will be taken every couple of hours, then plotted on a curve to determine the highest and lowest points of the blood sugar. This will indicate the effectiveness of the insulin and helps the vet determine the proper dosage needed for the cat. Alternatively, this all-day blood glucose curve can be performed at home with an OTC home monitoring kit, which is helpful when needed to check-in on the health status of your diabetic cat.
Managing Your Diabetic Cat at Home
Once the right amount of insulin is determined, your cat will only need to be re-evaluated a few times a year going forward. However, the bulk of managing your cat’s DM will be left up to you to do at home. Most cats will be managed with twice daily insulin injections given under the skin, and some environmental factors will need to be adjusted including:
Your cat must eat prior to insulin injections, which may require extra time in the morning on your part.
Insulin bottle and supplies need to be taken care of properly (some states may require a sharps disposal container).
If home monitoring is elected, keep track of the cat’s daily blood sugar numbers, as well as its daily routine and habits.
Cost of Caring for a Diabetic Cat
Caring for a diabetic cat can be rewarding, but it is also important to be fiscally responsible and understand the needed costs for proper care and management. Pet insurance may be an option but if the cat was previously diagnosed with DM, it is considered a pre-existing condition and is not covered.
The initial visits and diagnostics are often the most expensive, especially since the expenses are incurred in a relatively short period. Once you’re past the initial visits and testing, long-term management often includes the following:
Insulin: There are many different types such as Vetsulin, Glargine, and Glipizide (oral option) and costs are variable depending on the type and frequency of usage. Expect to pay anywhere from $60 for 42 days (Vetsulin) to $300 for 28 days (Glargine).
Insulin syringes: Ensure that the type of needles match the insulin given. For example, Vetsulin requires U-40 syringes and Glargine requires U-100 syringes. The costs are variable but expect to pay about $40 for a three-month supply.
Sharps container: If needed per state law to dispose of used syringes, (about $10).
At-home blood glucose monitoring equipment: This includes AlphaTRAK 2 (about $70) or the FreeStyle Libre monitor ($130).
Diet: Often, prescription diets such as RC Glycobalance, Hill’s m/d or Purina DM are recommended.
Karo Syrup (or similar product): This syrup is often placed on the gums during a hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) event wherein your cat may experience weakness, lethargy, or even seizures if too much insulin was given.
It is important to note that if your cat does not eat then he or she should not receive insulin. Additionally, be sure that you are administering the insulin with the proper syringe (U-40 vs U-100). You should never adjust the insulin dose without first consulting your veterinarian.
Long-Term Management of Diabetic Cat
The key for managing your diabetic cat is keeping a healthy and consistent routine: diet and exercise, scheduled feedings (including treats), and insulin administration.
Cats inherently set their own pace in terms of exercise and activity, which usually doesn’t pose a problem. Your diabetic cat is more prone to infections and will take longer to heal so keeping it healthy with routine check-ups and away from others is essential.
Be patient as your cat acclimates to its new home. The transition from shelter life to home life can be quite stressful, so pay close attention to your cat’s behaviors and energy levels—as even the best well-managed cats can relapse. Urinary accidents, decreased appetites, and seclusion can be seen during this transition, and it’s recommended you partner with your veterinarian on ways to minimize stress.
Your cat should be examined within a few days of adoption, as follow-up visits and cooperation with your veterinarian will be vital for the success of managing your cat’s diabetes. In addition to the products listed in this article for DM management, it's recommended that you provide your cat with essential creature comforts such as comfortable bedding, adequate litter boxes (at least 2 per cat), toys, and more.
By simply adopting a diabetic cat into a loving home, you’ve already taken a big step toward providing it with a better life. Once you get past the initial vet visits and education of insulin management, you and your cat are on your way to a happy and fulfilling life together.
Adopting a Diabetic Cat FAQS
How long will a diabetic cat live?
The life expectancy of diabetic cats varies. Fortunately, most diabetic cats that are well managed can live a relatively normal life. Certain precautions will need to be taken, however, as they are prone to infections and complications may develop.
What are the symptoms of a diabetic cat?
Often, the first sign a pet parent may notice is an increase in thirst, urination, and hunger followed by an unexplained loss in weight.
What happens to an untreated diabetic cat?
Weakness, hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver) and diabetic neuropathy (dropped hocks – this is seen as a cat walking on her ankles instead of her paws) can develop. If untreated, this can lead to hospitalization and treatment for diabetic ketoacidosis, a life-threatening condition.
Is a cat with diabetes in pain?
Diabetes in cats is not directly a painful condition, but it can be quite debilitating. The clinical signs and progressive weight loss caused by DM will lead to poor emotional health and the physical effects it has on the body can be painful.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Svetlanais
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