Did you know feline diabetes impacts about 2% of the feline population and it’s one of the most under-diagnosed illnesses that can affect a cat? This may seem like a surprising number, especially if you’ve never considered diabetes in cats before. Luckily, knowing what feline diabetes is as well as the causes and symptoms can help cat parents catch the development of feline diabetes sooner rather than later.
What Is Feline Diabetes?
Like diabetes in humans, feline diabetes affects insulin in the body. Insulin is a hormone that is vital to the body’s ability to move glucose (sugar) into the cells from the bloodstream.
There are many different types of human diabetes including type 1, type 2, prediabetes, and gestational diabetes. In the case of feline diabetes, it most closely resembles type 2 diabetes.
Instead of the pancreas producing small amounts or even no insulin, like type 1 diabetes, humans with type 2 diabetes still produce insulin, but they’ve built up an insulin resistance.
This happens because type 2 diabetes affects the way glucose is processed in the body. Feline diabetes does the same. Eventually, glucose continues to pile up in the bloodstream which causes the symptoms most commonly used to identify diabetes.
Causes and Risk Factors of Feline Diabetes
There is no exact cause of feline diabetes, but one of the most likely contributions to the disease is being overweight. If your cat is obese, she will be more at risk for feline diabetes than a cat of appropriate weight. Obesity has many issues, but more notably, it makes the body less sensitive to insulin.
Age plays a role in feline diabetes, too. While feline diabetes can happen at any age, senior cats are more likely to develop diabetes than younger cats. In most cases, diabetes affects cats over the age of six years old, but it is most commonly diagnosed in cats between the ages of nine and thirteen. A decrease in the physical activity of older cats is said to be a factor in age playing a role in the diagnosis of diabetes.
While weight and age are the two most frequently assessed factors of diagnosing feline diabetes, there are several other contributing factors. Some breeds are more prone to develop diabetes than others. For example, Burmese cats have a higher risk of developing feline diabetes than most breeds. Feline diabetes is also more commonly diagnosed in neutered male cats over the age of ten. Another factor is other chronic conditions like hyperthyroidism and pancreatitis.
Symptoms of Feline Diabetes
As noted above, Feline Diabetes is more common in overweight cats. However, there are occurrences of cats that are the appropriate weight having diabetes, as well. If you notice your cat is experiencing any of the following symptoms, consult your vet right away.
Increased Thirst and Urination
If your cat is exhibiting an increase in urination, it is a sign of feline diabetes. Since her body isn’t able to extract glucose from her bloodstream, it can cause the glucose to be released through her urine. With a large amount of concentrated glucose in her urine, an increase of water is brought into her urine, which causes an increase in the volume. It also can lead to dehydration, sticky or tacky urine, and an increase in thirst.
Appetite is something cat parents tend to keep an eye on when it comes to caring for their cat, but it becomes even more important when it comes to health. Changes in appetite are a big indicator that something may not be quite right. If you notice your cat has an increase in appetite but seems to be losing weight despite eating more, it could be a sign she has developed feline diabetes.
It may sound strange that a symptom of feline diabetes is weight loss while another is an increase in appetite. As odd as it sounds, a cat with feline diabetes can still experience weight loss even though her appetite may have increased. The reason for this is that the cells in her body become starved for energy because they can no longer absorb glucose from her blood. As such, her body has to get its energy from other sources such as proteins and fats, which can cause weight loss even though she is eating more.
Just like a change in appetite, a change in activity levels is one of the most recognizable signs your cat might not be feeling well. If your cat is usually super active and suddenly becomes a couch potato, it is a good idea to watch for other symptoms of illness.
If your cat experiences any of these symptoms, contact your vet to set up an appointment to run some tests. Even if she is not diagnosed with feline diabetes, there could be another underlying issue that needs attention.
Treatment of Feline Diabetes
There is no cure for feline diabetes, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Diabetes is a manageable disease, and when handled correctly, can lead to a long and happy life. There will be some adjustments for both you and your cat but by working closely with your veterinarian, the process can be fairly straightforward. Cats that suffer from diabetes will typically be treated with a two-part treatment plan.
Just as insulin is used to treat humans with diabetes, your cat will begin an insulin therapy plan. Treating feline diabetes with insulin therapy requires insulin to be administered in the form of a shot, as oral treatments don’t generally work when it comes to treating cats with diabetes. Since diabetic cats need to injected frequently, your vet will teach you how to administer the shots. This can be intimidating and even scary at first but with a little practice, both you and your cat will adapt quite quickly.
As insulin therapy can be difficult to get just right straight out of the gate, cat parents should expect to be seeing their vet quite frequently at first, as their cat will be subjected to several blood tests to check insulin levels. This will likely be done within a 12-24 hour window in which the vet will give your cat doses of insulin intermittently and check her glucose levels to see what is working best for her body, which can help to prevent hypoglycemia.
The next part of treating feline diabetes is a change in diet, which is a crucial element of managing the disease. Cats that experience symptoms of diabetes will need to go on a high protein, low carb diet. There are several reasons for this type of diet. The first being that cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they get their main source of nutrients from other animals like birds, mice, and fish. In the wild, a cat would exist on a diet of prey that she catches, which will be low in carbs and high in protein.
As they’re often made with starch, dry foods are high in carbs which goes against a cat’s natural diet. The main problem with this is that cat’s bodies are not equipped to break down large amounts of carbohydrates like a human. A low carb diet is one that gets 10% or less of its calories from carbohydrates. In some cases, a cat’s carbohydrate restriction may be as low as 5% until it can maintain control over its diabetes. Either way, a low carb diet is the most recommended diet plan for cats with feline diabetes, though it can benefit healthy cats as well.
Best Foods for Diabetic Cats
The easiest way to achieve a low carb, high protein diet is with canned food. As convenient has dry food is, the high carbohydrate content can be detrimental to diabetic cats. Dry food is also often made with plant protein which doesn’t provide enough protein to support a cat’s needs. Canned cat food, on the other hand, consists primarily of protein from a meat source and is low in carbohydrates, which is why it is recommended for diabetic cats.
That being said, it is possible to find dry foods that are low in carbohydrates, but it may require a little work. Not all cat foods list the carbohydrate content on the label, so it can be difficult to figure out which ones will be best. For that reason, it is important to consult your vet if you have any concerns when trying to find a dry food that meets the diet requirements of a diabetic cat.
Not surprisingly, many veterinarians suggest cat parents feed their diabetic cats a prescription food. Prescription diets are helpful because they can take the guesswork out of establishing the appropriate diet for a cat with an illness, allergies, or other issues. For feline diabetes, there are several recommended options.
- Purina Veterinary Diets DM Dietetic Management Feline Formula dry food and canned food.
- Hill’s Prescription Diet w/d Digestive/Weight Management dry food and canned food.
- ROYAL CANIN Feline Glycobalance dry food and canned food.
While many cats benefit from prescription foods, they don’t always meet the recommended low carb diet requirements. Prescription diets can also be costly and many cat parents find it difficult to maintain the extra monthly expense over a long period. So, while prescription diets may seem like the best route, that’s not always the case. In fact, Dr. Lisa A. Pierson, DVM says, “There is absolutely no reason to spend your hard-earned money on veterinarian-prescribed diets.”
Instead, you can begin feeding your cat a raw food diet that allows you to control exactly what she is eating. If that seems too daunting, look for high-quality commercial brands that offer low carb foods. So, while prescription diets may seem like the obvious choice, there are other options that are more affordable when it comes to foods that will help regulate feline diabetes.
- EVO High Protein Canned Cat Food.
- Merrick Before Grain Dry Food.
- Blue Wilderness High Protein dry food and canned food.
The important thing to remember is that feline diabetes is easily treated. As long as you follow the treatment plan prescribed by your vet and change your cat’s diet to reflect one that is low carb and high protein, you will both begin to see improvements. If your cat is in the early stages of feline diabetes, it is even possible that she will achieve full remission after a few months on the appropriate diet and some insulin therapy. Regardless, with a little patience, your cat will be feeling good as new in no time!