Wait, what? Cats can have diabetes? Yes it’s true! Your cat can develop diabetes, just like humans. After hyperthyroidism, diabetes is the most common endocrine disorder we diagnose in middle aged and senior cats. Diabetes results from either the inability to produce enough insulin (typically called Type 1 diabetes in humans) or the development of insulin resistance as a result of persistently elevated blood glucose levels (called Type 2 diabetes in humans). When dogs develop diabetes, it is usually due to a decrease in insulin production resulting from immune-mediated destruction of the insulin-producing portion of the pancreas. When cats develop diabetes, it is usually due to insulin resistance from obesity and/or an inappropriate high-carbohydrate diet. Left untreated, diabetes can lead to weight loss, loss of appetite, vomiting, dehydration, severe depression, problems with motor function, coma, and even death.
What signs should I look for to tell me if my cat may have diabetes? The hallmark symptoms of diabetes are increased thirst and urination, along with an increased appetite and weight loss. Some cats with diabetes have a ravenous appetite because their bodies cannot use the fuel supplied in their diet. While diabetes can be diagnosed in cats with an appropriate body weight, it is much more common in obese cats. If your cat is having any of these signs, contact your veterinarian and set up an appointment. Diabetes is usually simple to diagnose with a blood test and urinalysis.
What do I do now that my cat has been diagnosed with diabetes? The good news is that there is a chance that your cat may go into diabetic remission with a low-carbohydrate diet and insulin administration. Dietary management is a central component of diabetes treatment in cats. It has been established that a low-carbohydrate, all canned food diet is best for cats with diabetes. Some cats may go into diabetic remission with a low-carb diet alone, but many need insulin and a diet change for the best chance at remission. For diabetic cats, insulin injections need to be given twice daily under the skin. Most cats are very tolerant of this, as the insulin needles are quite small. Your veterinarian will schedule time to demonstrate how to safely and comfortable administer the injections and discuss the ins and outs of managing a diabetic cat.
I have started treatment for my diabetic cat. Now what? Within a week or two of diagnosis, diabetics require a glucose curve (where blood sugar levels are measured every 2 hours over the course of a full day) or the application of a continuous glucose monitor such as the Freestyle Libre, which tracks blood sugar levels in real time at home over the course of a week. This testing will help determine if your kitty is receiving the correct insulin dose. Once the diabetes is stabilized, patients that are diabetic need to have routine blood work and a physical examination at least every six months. This is essential to make sure glucose levels are controlled and that the insulin dose does not need to be adjusted.
With appropriate treatment, most diabetic cats can live a normal, happy lives. Early detection and early treatment are key!