Cat Diabetes: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Cat Diabetes is a fairly common condition of many cats. My clients are sometimes surprised to hear that a cat can develop diabetes. It comes down again to the fact that cats have almost all of the same organs we do and if they malfunction, our kitties develop the same diseases we do.

Diabetes is a chronic illness that changes how carbohydrates are processed in your cat's body due to insulin resistance or a poor response to natural insulin. For those who don't know, insulin is needed to regulate glucose in your cat's bloodstream, which creates problems with a number of metabolic functions, as well as the kidneys, heart, skin, and eyes among other vital organs. After treating diabetic cats for over 20 years in my feline veterinary practice, I, for the first time, diagnosed diabetes in my own cat a few years ago.

Symptoms of Cat Diabetes

It's important to know the most frequent symptoms of feline diabetes because they are usually easy to recognize. It is important to catch them early and begin treatment early, as diabetes can be quite manageable and a diabetic cat can live a normal lifespan if treated quickly and effectively.

(1) Increased Thirst

(2) Increased Urination

(3) An increased appetite in the beginning which may decrease over time if not diagnosed and treated

(4) Weight loss, although diabetic cats often begin as overweight cats

(5) As time goes on, lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea may appear

(6) If a cat is diabetic too long without diagnosis and treatment, you will begin to see a change in the back legs as he walks. Instead of walking up on his "toes" as cats do, his hocks will become lower to the ground and the cat will almost walk flat-footed.

This is due to a condition called diabetic neuropathy and indicates the disease has been present for quite some time. The good news is that it can be reversed if treatment is successful and the kitty becomes stable. It takes time, but most cats can once again walk fairly normally.

Diagnosing Cat Diabetes

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Keep in mind that when you live with multiple cats, it's not always possible to know if one is drinking or urinating excessively, two of the hallmark signs of diabetes in cats. I wasn't aware it was going on in my house and I'm a vet. Calvin was diagnosed when he was was due to the fact I was running routine blood work on all my cats in preparation for their dental cleanings, and although Calvin appeared to be the healthiest of all my cats, his blood work showed a glucose level of 476!

If a cat has a high blood glucose reading, one should never start treatment with cat insulin without verifying the results by repeating the blood test and collecting urine.

I did both for Calvin and recommend the same to all of my clients. I did another blood glucose test on Calvin and a urinalysis. The results were clear. He was definitely a diabetic feline.

I won't lie to you and say that it was no big deal. I love my cats deeply and and it made me very sad and a little scared even to learn of Calvin's diabetes even though I had helped hundreds of cats with feline diabetes before. But this was my own cat and it felt different. I was nervous, just as you may be. But I mustered up my optimism and courage and our cat diabetes journey began.

Overcoming Your Fears of Treating Cat Diabetes

In spite of the large numbers of cats I have lived with during my lifetime, it wasn't until almost 4 years ago that I lived with a cat with diabetes. I have been treating feline diabetics for over 20 years as a feline veterinarian, but when it's your own and you live with it, it's much different, and even for myself, fear was normal.

If your cat has just been diagnosed with cat diabetes and you're feeling frightened and overwhelmed, I want to reassure you. I want you to remember and believe the following:

(1) Yes, you CAN inject your cat with a needle to give insulin. The needle is very fine - your cat won't even feel it, especially if he is eating or sleeping when you do it.

(2) Yes, your cat CAN tolerate the insulin needle easily even if he/she is not typically a physically affectionate, easily approachable cat.

(3) Injecting insulin into a cat is easier than giving medication by mouth to a cat if you've ever done that.

(4) Diabetic cats can live long healthy, happy lives with treatment.

(5) There are relatively easy solutions to all your objections or fears about treating your diabetic cat.

Watch this short video to see how easy it is
to inject your cat with insulin.

As you can see in the above video, the cat received his injection and didn't even get up from his relaxed position afterwards. He continued to act as if nothing happened. This is typical.

Feline Diabetes Treatment

All the proper testing had been completed to see if my cat, Calvin, was a diabetic feline. I now knew for certain that he was and that it was time to start treatment for cat diabetes.

It was time to follow my own advice that I had given for so many years to my clients who lived with a diabetic feline. The main considerations in treating cat diabetes are selection of the best type of pet insulin, finding a feline diabetic diet your cat will like, and learning to test the glucose levels of your cat at home.

If that sounds scary, just watch the following video to see a demonstration of the home testing procedure. It's easy!

Your veterinarian or vet technician will be able to help you learn to test your kitty. It is very, very important to get a glucose meter and test your cat in your own home. I have not seen an owner or cat yet that could not get used to doing this. That is the only way you will really know your cat’s glucose levels and know how much insulin to give.

This information may sound very new to many, most of you and it will even be unfamiliar to many of your veterinarians. However, I assure you, it works well and makes total sense. I know how successful this feline diabetes treatment can be from my experience with my own cat over the last months as well as many of my clients' cats.

The diabetic cats that do the best follow the "tight regulation" method of treating cat diabetes. I have not gone into more detail about the tight regulation method here because it is covered thoroughly on Dr. Hodgkins's website, Home testing is SO important for achieving the best glycemic control of your diabetic cat.

Cat Insulin

diabetic cat
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Insulin is necessary for treating cat diabetes because it is critical for regulating the blood glucose of a cat. Cats without diabetes produce their own insulin in the amounts they need to stay healthy. A diabetic feline, on the other hand, does not produce enough of their own insulin so they must get insulin through injections.

Treating diabetes in cats can be challenging for both veterinarians and cat owners for two reasons:

(1) Cat diabetes can be unpredictable. There is more variation in the way they respond to treatment than there is with other species.

(2) Not all insulin works well for cats.

Over the years, many different types of insulin have been used for cat diabetes. Beef insulin is the closest match to cat insulin, then pork, and the least compatible is human. At times, we have had few choices and just had to use whatever was available. In fact, most of the time, we have had to treat cat diabetes with insulin that was actually best for dogs or people. However, one type of insulin, ProZinc (protamine zinc recombinant human insulin), was designed specifically for the feline diabetic. I have found it to be quite satisfactory in the treatment of diabetes in cats. There are other types of insulin which you will hear about on the internet and from other veterinarians, but most of my clients are still using primarily PROZINC.

An injection of ProZinc cat insulin usually lasts around 12 hours in cats. Cats metabolize insulin more quickly than dogs or people. For this reason, cats almost always require an injection twice daily.

Insulin can be a complicated matter, though, and I have had many challenges in treating my own diabetic cat as well as some of my patients. Over time, insulin can become less effective for some cats or certain types may not work at all. It's very important, however, to educate yourself about insulin options, reactions to insulin, and the amount of time each insulin could take for regulating blood glucose levels. Because this is a complicated matter, this page delves more into the subject of cat insulin, and I highly recommend reading it if you are exploring insulin options or struggling with a poorly regulated diabetic feline.

Feeding a Diabetic Cat

The diet that you feed your cat is as important as the insulin you give. In fact, the cat food your kitty has eaten may be a large part of the reason he became diabetic to begin with. Now, it's time to change.

Why Do Cats Have A Problem Eating A Diet High in Carbohydrates?

The most important thing to remember about any cat diet is that cats are true carnivores. A diet high in carbohydrates is bad for all cats and certainly will make it more difficult to successfully treat a diabetic feline. Cats lack the enzymes needed to use carbohydrates for their energy requirements. Instead, they utilize proteins and fats for their energy. For example, birds and mice only have three to five percent carbohydrates. However, most dry food contains more than 35% and even as high as 50% carbs.

If a cat is fed a diet high in carbohydrates, the excess carbs end up as fat deposits in the cat’s body. This excess fat leads to greater insulin resistance, leading to the development of feline diabetes.

There are several different companies that manufacture a feline diabetic diet. Royal Canin, Hills, and Purina all have cat prescription diets that include diabetic cat food.
All companies offer both dry and canned forms of their diabetic cat food diets. However, if you compare the carbohydrate content of different feline diabetic diets, you will find that not all diets are created equally:

Hill's Prescription dry m/d: (16% carbohydrates)

Hill's Prescription canned m/d: (16% carbohydrates)

Purina dry DM: (15% carbohydrates)

Purina canned DM: (8% carbohydrates)

The dry versions of these products are lower in carbohydrates than the majority of dry cat food products on the market. However, as you can see, Purina canned DM has the lowest carbohydrate level by far. Much less than the dry versions. However, the Purina diet contains many ingredients that are totally out of line with what a cat in its natural habitat would eat.

On the other hand, if we look at Wellness canned Chicken, for instance, we find that it generally has 5 percent or less carbohydrate content, even closer to the nutritional profile of a bird or mouse. This low amount of carbohydrates, the lack of grains in the diet, a good amount of muscle meat, and the absence of preservatives make it a much more desirable cat food.

If you feed your cat a proper low carb diet, your cat may actually lose his requirement for insulin. If he doesn't completely lose his need for insulin, it is very likely he will need far less insulin to maintain an appropriate blood glucose level.

Bottom line, it is important, especially with cat diabetes, to get your cat to eat far more canned food and far less dry food. Of the dry foods, the feline prescription diabetic diets have lower carb levels than most non-prescription commercial diets. However, an appropriate canned diet can have far less carbohydrates than dry food. In addition, a healthier diet with healthier ingredients is, of course, desirable.

Diabetic Cat Food and Diabetic Cat Treatment

Dry cat food, any dry cat food, even the prescription diabetic cat foods, have too many carbohydrates for a diabetic cat. Cats need high protein, low carbohydrate diets!

A diabetic diet for cats MUST be low in carbohydrates. Because this information can't be obtained by looking at a can of cat food, we have a list of low-carbohydrate foods that you can print and take with you to the store. Any foods or flavors not seen on this list either haven't been calculated or do not meet the proper low-carbohydrate requirements!

Helpful Resources

It's very common to feel overwhelmed, frightened, and alone in your journey to treat cat diabetes. The questions and answers found below were sent in from readers like yourself struggling to care for a diabetic cat. Many of your questions can be answered by reading through some of these articles!

For those that can't however, the following pages and websites can provide a lot of additional information and support around caring for your diabetic feline:

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