The correct scientific name for diabetes is Diabetes Mellitus and it can occur in cats as well as in dogs and humans. It is a disorder of the endocrine system which means it is connected with the hormones that govern the metabolism of the body. In the case of diabetes, the hormone is insulin which is produced by the pancreas. In healthy cats, insulin is released when the body ingests carbohydrates and converts these into blood glucose (a type of sugar). The insulin is responsible for triggering the liver and stimulating the muscles to take up glucose from the blood and convert to energy. In diabetes, there is not enough insulin to support the metabolism. The way in which the body produces energy and grows is disrupted.
Diabetes in Cats – What you Need To Know
There are two distinct types of diabetes. In Type I diabetes, there is a true shortage of insulin because the pancreas is not producing it. Whereas, in Type II diabetes, the cells of the body may not be responding to the insulin and this is referred to as insulin resistance. Both types of diabetes have the effect of preventing muscles and organs converting glucose to energy. As a result, the amount of glucose in the blood builds up. When there is too much glucose in the blood, it is called hyperglycemia.
There are no complete records on how many cats have diabetes in the US but it is estimated that between 0.5% to 2% of the total cat population are affected. This figure could be a lot higher because many cases are not diagnosed. Type II diabetes is the most common form of the disease in cats. However, some of these cases can become Type I diabetes. Also, some cases of Type II diabetes require the same treatment as Type I so, for the owners, there is little difference.
Obviously, not all cats develop diabetes, so it is useful to know what causes it. It can be caused by anything that causes an inflammation of the pancreas and this happens in hyperthyroidism, Cushing’s Disease and after treatment with certain drugs. Also, Type II diabetes is more common in cats that are obese. Male cats and older cats are at a higher risk. It is thought that there is a genetic element to it as it seems to run in families.
Symptoms of Diabetes in Cats
It is important that cat Moms and Dads know how to spot the symptoms of diabetes. The first signs that you may spot will be your cat becoming very thirsty (which is unusual for cats) and going to have a pee more often.
Also, some cats with diabetes become very hungry because their bodies cannot utilize the energy in their food. Other cats with diabetes have a poor appetite and lose weight. You may notice some wasting of the back muscles and weakness in the back legs. Their coat may become oily and they may have dandruff. Eventually, your cat will become lethargic, slip into a coma and they can die. Medical tests can show up an enlarged liver, jaundice and ketoacidosis which is caused by a breakdown of protein and fat in the liver.
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Treatment of Diabetes
It is possible to successfully treat and manage diabetes. It is important that your cat is seen promptly by your vet so that treatment can be started as soon as possible. Before any treatment can be started, your vet will need to make a diagnosis.
Diagnosis of Diabetes
In order to diagnose diabetes, your vet will need to take a detailed medical history. It is important that you accurately describe the symptoms and when they started. They will probably want to complete a full blood count and chemical profile. They may need to have their urine tested.
A diagnosis of diabetes is usually given when an abnormally high concentration of glucose is found in the blood and urine. There may also be high levels of liver enzymes and electrolytes and high concentrations of ketones in the urine. These are water-soluble molecules produced by the liver and when these are present, it is usually judged to be a medical emergency.
To confirm the diagnosis, your vet may order x-rays or ultrasound scans as they can detect kidney stones and inflammation of the pancreas and liver which are recognized complications of diabetes.
Treatment of Diabetes
It is not normally possible to cure diabetes. Sometimes, with the correct diet, it can be possible for it to go into remission. It can stay this way for months or even years. However, this is unusual and most cats with diabetes will need lifelong treatment to keep the condition under control and to prevent it from deteriorating and causing life-threatening complications.
- Insulin therapy. The main treatment for diabetes is insulin therapy which is given by injection. It is possible to get oral medications, but they have side effects and are not the first choice.
- Monitoring. In order to prescribe the correct dose of insulin, your cat will need regular blood and urine tests as well as physical examinations. You should not try to adjust the dose on your own because you could make your cat worse. Your vet will probably want to see your cat every three or four months to check how the treatment is going. In some cases, you can be taught to carry out the blood tests yourself if you feel confident in doing this.
- Owner’s role in treatment. You will need to learn how to administer the insulin, which will be given in an injection. This may seem daunting at first and most cat Moms and Dads are apprehensive. However, once you have been taught how to do it by your vet, you will soon get the hang of it. It can be a very rewarding thing to do and is just another part of caring for your lovely kitty.
- Individual treatment plan. No two cases of feline diabetes are the same so your cat will need their own carefully designed treatment and management plan. This requires you to keep a close eye on your cat and to communicate effectively with your vet. There is more than one type of insulin available. Your vet will choose the one that is most suitable for your cat based on their specific health needs.
- Dosage. Your role in administering the insulin is crucial. You have to give your cat exactly the right dose at exactly the right time. If you fail to do this, your cat’s blood glucose will not be under control and there is the chance that they will develop life threatening complications. Ketoacidosis is one of these complications and has led to the death of many cats with diabetes.
- Glucose testing. There will always have to be a close monitoring of your cat’s glucose levels so that the overall status of the condition can be checked. You will be taught what to look out for. Any signs of hypoglycemia (low levels of glucose) or hyperglycemia (high level of glucose) are dangerous. It will help if you learn how to keep a chart of the daily and weekly information. This will include a list of what your cat has eaten, their glucose test results and their daily insulin dose. You should also weigh them every week as this will help you to spot if they are either gaining or losing weight.
- Surgery. The treatment for female cats may include surgery. The hormones that are produced by the female reproductive system, especially the ovaries, can get in the way of the successful management of diabetes in your cat. Therefore, once the diabetes has been stabilized, your vet may recommend that your female cat has her ovaries and uterus (womb) removed.
- This is an important part of diabetes management. Your cat will require daily exercise but not anything too strenuous. If you can help your cat to reach a healthy weight, it will greatly reduce the severity of the symptoms.
Even with the correct treatment, it is a sad fact that diabetes can shorten the lifespan of many cats. It makes your cat more susceptible to infections and it can cause problems with the peripheral nerves. You will also have to be very careful about any medication that you give your cat. Don’t order any medication online or purchase any from the pet store. It could adversely affect a diabetic cat. Always speak to your vet first. Medical emergencies are something that you need to be prepared for so have your vet’s emergency number on speed dial. If you are going away, make sure that whoever is caring for your cat has it too!
However, it is not all bad news! Many diabetic cats can and do live into old age with the commitment and support of their loving human family. New feline insulin products are being tested all the time. The research into human diabetes is being adapted to suit cats so in the future there will be improved blood sugar control and fewer side effects.
The Role of Diet in Diabetes
Diet plays a major role in the prevention of and in the management of diabetes. In terms of prevention, it is well known that obesity is a risk factor so controlling your cat’s weight will certainly help to prevent it, just as it does in humans. However, there is no such thing as a ‘diabetes prevention’ diet for cats as yet. No medical research has been carried out in this area. Preventing your cat from getting obese is a good place to start but some breeds of cat are simply more prone to it than others so it is likely that genetics play an important role.
Diet also plays an important role in the treatment of diabetes in cats. Most vets agree that a low-carbohydrate diet will help most cats to successfully control their blood sugar levels. If your cat is diagnosed with diabetes, it makes sense to switch them to a low-carbohydrate diet but you must follow your vet’s advise about this and you may need to make the change gradually. Never change the diet of your diabetic cat without first discussing it with your vet.
For a diabetic cat, a commercially prepared cat food may be the best option. You could try cooking your cat’s food yourself but it is hard to get the diet balanced. You would have to be an expert in feline diet and nutrition and would need to know exactly how much protein, carbohydrate and fat were in the food that you have cooked. Very few cat owners have the skills to do this correctly.
The guidance on choosing wet or dry food or using a mixture of both is less clear. The issue is fiercely debated right now and the experts have yet to reach an agreement which is not very helpful for owners of diabetic cats! Some experts argue that a very high-protein, very low-carbohydrate wet cat food is best because that most closely matches the diet of a wild cat. Others argue that dried food is a lot more convenient for owners and that millions of cats worldwide live to a ripe old age having been fed a dry food diet. The bottom line is that you must always speak to your vet and follow their guidance. Do not make any sudden changes in your cat’s diet. Your vet will help you to design a diet plan and combine this with life-style changes to best manage your cat’s diabetes.
Once your cat has been diagnosed with diabetes, the success of their treatment and their overall health is largely dependent on you. If you can learn to work with your vet and do everything you can to monitor and treat the condition, your cat is very likely to live for many more happy years.
- Feline Diabetes – Cornell Feline Health Center
- Diabetes in Cats: Symptoms, Causes, Risk Factors, Treatment, and Life Expectancy – PetMD