HEALTH & CARE

Diabetes in Cats: How to Spot It Early And Treat?

sick cat
Stella Noble
Written by Stella Noble

Diabetes (Diabetes Mellitus) is a chronic medical condition that affects between 0.5 to 2% of domestic cats. Although this number doesn’t seem bad, statistics might be incorrect because many veterinarians think diabetes in cats is underdiagnosed. A recent study showed that 1 in 230 cats in the US suffer from diabetes, and the numbers are growing.

A common problem in diagnosing diabetes in cats is that the early symptoms are very mild. It can take a couple of years until the owner actually figures out something is wrong, and by that time, the condition usually becomes very serious. Cats can’t tell us that they suffer from chronic fatigue or need more water than usual, and we don’t notice such subtle changes right on. But if we have a good understanding of diabetes in cats, we will know what to keep an eye on.

In this article, we are going to give you some basic info about diabetes types—their symptoms and causes. Luckily, diabetes is a condition that can be kept under control and even cured successfully, so we are also going to discuss how to take care of a diabetic cat, how to treat the disease, and what to expect in terms of recovery and lifespan of the cat.

Type 1 Diabetes: Symptoms and Causes

insulin to a cat

In general, diabetes is caused by a malfunction of the pancreas, an organ which produces insulin. Insulin is a hormone that regulates the metabolism of sugars. In other words, if there is not enough insulin to “transform” sugars, particularly glucose, into something our cells can use to produce energy, we say that person (or cat) suffers from diabetes.

Diabetes is commonly separated into two major groups—type 1 and type 2. Most cats affected by this disease suffer from type 2 diabetes, but it is also worth to mention that type 1 is not uncommon among young cats.

This type is also known as juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes. It usually first appears in adolescent cats, but can also affect a small percentage of adults.

#1: Causes

Type 1 diabetes is usually caused by viral infections, genetics, or dietary conditions in early life. It is not curable, and the affected cat needs to receive insulin to manage sugar levels in the blood.

Proper care, dietary restrictions, and treatment can stabilize the condition, but it is a lifetime commitment, and there is no opting out. Cats that suffer from this type of diabetes need constant care.

#2: Symptoms

Type 1 diabetes is easily detectable and basic blood work should be enough for a vet to realize there is a problem. We strongly recommend that you do blood analysis once a year, just to get a detailed picture of your cat’s health and prevent possible problems.

Cats with type 1 diabetes may suffer from one or more of the following symptoms of diabetes in cats:

  • Increased thirst. On average, cats drink about 50 ml of water per 1 kg of body weight. This means that a cat weighing 5 kg should drink around 2.5 dl of water (one cup) a day. Of course, this varies a lot depending on their dietary habits and breed. Cats who eat kibble need to take in a lot more than cats who eat wet or cooked food, and there are also some breeds which won’t drink water for the life of them (desert breeds are famous for this). The best way to keep track is to use a water bowl roughly the volume your cat needs, and visit the vet if there are any significant changes in water intake.
  • Fatigue, lethargy, or altered mood. Although this is one of the most common signs of diabetes, it is also a common sign of pretty much anything. If your cat changes her behaviour and becomes more indifferent or sassy than the usual feline ethics demand, take her to the vet immediately.
  • Increased appetite and weight loss. Again, most cats can eat until they burst, but if an increase in food intake is followed by loss of weight, it is a spot on sign of diabetes. This disease is caused by metabolic problems and can trigger many problems regarding weight regulation, so if you notice an unusual loss of body mass while your cat still eats a lot of food, take her to the vet.

Type 2 Diabetes: Symptoms and Causes

fat cat sitting on coach

This type usually occurs in adults and seniors. The majority of diabetic cats suffer from type 2 diabetes. This disease occurs when the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar on the normal level, or when the body resists the effects of this hormone.

Although it is not entirely the same as the human form, it can be treated in a similar way. Good news is, this type is treatable and can even be completely cured, meaning that your cat won’t be needing insulin injections anymore. Even if a complete recovery is not possible, good care and treatment can provide normal life expectancy.

#1: Causes

It can be caused by many factors, the most frequent one being obesity. Overweight cats are at much higher risk than cats with normal weight.

Dietary habits are also a huge factor. If your cat is eating food that is not healthy for cats, such as processed meat, salty food, and sweets, there is a high probability that she will have problems with diabetes at some point in her life.

We love to share everything with our pets, but even if it’s cute, certain foods are just not good for felines.

For example, many people offer canned fish to their furry friends. While cats just love it, preservatives and spices, especially sodium, are detrimental to feline health. Sugars of any kind are virtually non-existent in the natural diet of cats. Some cats have a sweet tooth and will beg for a sweet treat, but really shouldn’t be given sugar under any circumstances. The list goes on.

#2: Symptoms

Since many of the symptoms are very similar to those of type 1 diabetes, we will list them without further explanations. Those that are type 2 specific will be explained thoroughly.

  • Increased thirst.
  • Fatigue, lethargy, or altered mood.
  • Increased appetite and weight loss.
  • Frequent urination or accidents. If you missed the increased water intake (and most owners would), maybe you will notice that your cat is urinating more often than usual. These two symptoms are obviously related. Cats with diabetes tend to suffer from chronic dehydration because of metabolic malfunctions, hence the increased thirst. This can be a very serious issue because diabetes can lead to renal disease (diabetic nephropathy), ultimately causing kidney failure.
  • Decreased bowel control. If your cat is usually very clean and you start noticing pools of urine or feces outside of the litter box (and the litter box was clean and neat to begin with), it might be time to suspect diabetes. Sometimes diabetic cats have low bladder and bowel control and just can’t make it to the loo in time.
  • Wounds or sores are slow to heal. This symptom is very specific for type 2 diabetes, in humans and cats alike. If you notice that small wounds and cuts are healing very slowly or getting infected “out of nowhere,” you are probably dealing with diabetes.
  • Chronic eye, ear, and other infections. Related to the previous symptom, this one is also a dead giveaway. Type 2 diabetes decreases the body’s immune response, leading to more infections and slower recovery.
  • Darkened skin. This is a symptom hard to notice for obvious reasons. Hairless breeds, which are also more prone to diabetes, might show these signs. If you see areas where the skin is darker than it used to be, especially around the torso and the neck, you are most likely dealing with diabetes.
  • Vomiting. Frequent vomiting unrelated to feeding habits can also be a telltale sign of diabetes. Since the cells are not getting sugar to produce energy, the body starts burning fat instead. Breaking down fat leads to producing excess waste products such as ketones. Too many ketones in the bloodstream causes nausea and vomiting. If your cat vomits “randomly,” sometimes expelling only mucus and spleen, she might be in a serious medical condition called ketoacidosis. This condition requires intensive care, and you should take your cat to the vet immediately.
  • Diabetic neuropathy in cats. About 1 in every 10 hyperglycemic patients suffer from this condition. It affects the femoral nerve (a nerve in the thigh, responsible for leg movement), causing a very unusual position of the hind legs while walking—basically, a cat walking on the whole foot like humans, instead of the toes. This condition is called “the plantigrade gait” and it is very painful and problematic for cats. In time, the cat will become unable to jump and will ultimately lose control of the hind legs. Good news is, this condition can be cured if caught in the early stages. If you notice weakness in your cat’s hind legs, or if your cat sometimes walks on the whole hind feet—as if she was trying to sit down, but continued walking—it’s time for red alert. This is nothing to be relaxed about, and you should take your cat to the vet that very moment. There are many symptoms of diabetes that are very hard to spot, but this is definitely not one of them. Having a cat that walks “funny” is not something that doesn’t draw attention. This condition develops over the course of several months; it is treatable and can be reversed in 9-12 months. If you react quickly, which you always should, the damage to the nervous system can be minimal and even avoided.

Diabetic Cat Care

Diabetes is a serious medical condition and requires daily treatments.

As far as diabetic cat care medical costs go, it is probably one of the most affordable conditions out there; when the diagnosis is set, and the medication is prescribed, it costs no more than $20-$30 per month. Some people think taking care of a diabetic cat is tedious, even hard, but this is not the case. The only important thing is consistency.

#1: Diabetic Cat Food

cat food

First and foremost, if your cat is obese, she must lose weight. This is the first step to take, and hopefully, the diabetes will disappear together with the extra kilograms. No joke here; there were cases where diabetes resolved itself when the cat was back to the normal weight.

See Also: How Much Should a Cat Weigh

Another important thing is to pay special attention to the ingredients of the kibble. So, to summarize:

  • Give just enough food, no more. We all know what happens if the cat doesn’t get all the food she wants—all hell breaks loose. But this medical condition is no laughing matter, and it’s very important to follow your vet’s instructions when it comes to the dietary regime. No matter how much your precious pet whines, protests, or sulks, you should not give in. If you could also squeeze in a 15-minute exercise routine every day, your cat will be a lean, mean healthy machine in no time.
  • Special food brands for weight control. Some cat food manufacturers offer diabetic cat food formulas that are very good for keeping your cat where you want her. Of course, not everything is as it’s written on the package, so you might want to ask for your vet’s opinion before you start shopping. Look at the ingredients list carefully and do your own research on forums before giving money for a special magic weight loss formula.
  • High protein, low carbohydrate. This is a mantra that should help you remember what your diabetic cat needs. Keeping carbohydrates at a minimum will help regulate glucose levels in the blood. Carbohydrates should not be highly present in cat food to begin with, but today, it’s practically unavoidable. Carbohydrates such as corn, potatoes, and rice are common fillers in most cat food brands, leaving only 50% (at best) of total mass for meat. Remember, cats are obligate carnivores.
  • Pay attention to quality. Another problem is, even if there really is 50% meat in the kibble, what meat is it? Common practices are calling the meat with terms such as “meat meal,” “animal byproducts,” “processed proteins,” etc, but this means close to nothing. Due to FDA regulations, all of the above can be anything from hooves and horns to skin and teeth. To make things worse, “animal-based protein” can also be just lard, eggs, or similar products that are rich in fat and can lead to more weight gain. And that’s precisely what you want to avoid. How to avoid this problem? Again, read the ingredients list carefully. By law, the ingredients must be put on the label in a particular order, from the highest volume percentage to the lowest. That will give you a good idea of what actually makes up most of the food. The other thing to look for is specific meat products like “whole chicken,” “liver,” and similar.
  • Cooking. Cooking for cats is not easy. Unless you know exactly what you’re doing, you shouldn’t base the majority of your cat’s diet on home cooked food. Why? Among other things, because of amino acids. There are 23 amino acids in total. Some can be made by our metabolism from smaller components; others can’t. Those that can’t be made are called “essentials” and we have to take them in as they are. There are 9 essential amino acids for humans and 11 for cats. Failing to provide any of them (and some need to be artificially added to processed food) can be detrimental to your cat’s well being. We are not telling you to never cook for your cat. On the contrary, it is quite fine to make it a regular thing, but not go exclusive. There is nothing better than serving your cat a freshly cooked piece of meat, or even offer raw meat if she likes it; it’s natural, after all. It’s also helps with weight loss because home-cooked meat is minimally processed and fresh.
  • Feeding time is something you will have to ask your vet about. It depends on other factors, such as medications and insulin shots. Meals should be timed so that dangerous blood sugar spikes are avoided.

#2: Oral Medications

pill for a cat

Oral medications can be given to your cat to lower blood sugar levels. Human diabetes medication should not be given to cats under any circumstances, because most of them are either toxic to cats or simply don’t work.

These meds are also called “hypoglycemic agents” and they are very effective and easier to give than an insulin shot. However, insulin injections are still the best method for combating diabetes, so pills might not be applicable in every case or situation. Your vet will decide what cat diabetes treatment is best for your cat and her condition.

#3: Insulin Injections

 Insulin Injections for a cat

If it comes to this, please don’t be horrified. Insulin shots are very easy to give, and the needle is so tiny your cat might not even feel it. Owners of diabetic cats administer insulin shots routinely, and there is really nothing risky about it. Once the vet shows you how, you’ll be relieved.

Insulin shots are given two times a day, roughly every 12 hours, under the skin. Yes, having a diabetic cat is a big commitment, but if you’re going on a vacation, there are always daycares with professionals who know the drill.

Now let’s take a look at some usual questions people have about insulin and daily care for a diabetic cat.

  • How much insulin is given? This changes on a case to case basis and will be something to learn from your vet. The “insulin curve” is how you monitor levels of blood sugar on a regular basis, so insulin dosage can be adjusted accordingly. Never change the dosage without consulting the vet, though.
  • How often? As we said, insulin shots are given every 12 hours.
  • What happens if I give my cat too much insulin? What happens is that blood sugar can drop very low, depending on how much you overdosed it. Symptoms of low blood sugar are a wobbly walk, shaking, lethargy, and convulsions in more severe cases. Take your cat to the vet as soon as possible.
  • Insulin works 100% of the time, right? Nope… Some cats don’t respond well to insulin therapy. This can be due to other diseases or genetic factors, but if you notice anything odd or out of the ordinary, you know what to do—go to the vet.
  • How, when, and what to monitor? Home monitoring of blood sugar levels is very important and preferable. It is also very helpful to keep a daily log. How much insulin, time of injecting, amount of food eaten and when, are all important information if your cat’s condition changes. Another helpful thing is to weigh your cat once a week. If any significant weight loss happens, something should be done.

Cats with Diabetes – Life Expectancy

cat's birthday

There is no cure for feline diabetes. However, type 2 is known to go into remission (meaning the cat doesn’t need insulin anymore), but this isn’t always permanent. It is a reason to celebrate but stay diligent and monitor your cat’s weight and water/food intake, while doing blood work at least once a month.

A good low-carb diet, exercise, and proper medical care go a long way. Speaking about cats with diabetes life expectancy, many diabetic cats live to be 15 years old, or even older.

Wrap Up

taking care of a cat

Finding out your cat suffers from diabetes can be heartbreaking. It sounds like the end of the world. But try to look at it from another perspective—if you caught the symptoms early, you might be in luck. Your cat can live a long and healthy life by your side.

We have introduced you to two main types of diabetes (although there are more groups and diabetes has been actively researched for many decades) and described their causes and symptoms.

Let us know if you found this article helpful by posting a comment below! Do you know other useful facts about caring for a cat with diabetes? Do share any information in the comments section, and check out our next article on anemia in cats.

About the author
Stella Noble
Stella Noble

Stella Noble lives in Warren, Michigan with her family and three cats. She is a Certified Cat Trainer and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.

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