Diabetes in Cats


Pet owners are often surprised to learn that their pet can get the very same diseases as they can – and often for the same reasons. A good example of this is Diabetes Mellitus, known as sugar diabetes. As with in humans, this disease is on the rise in cats.

What is it?

Diabetes is a consequence either of too little insulin being produced by the pancreas or a cat’s inability to properly use the insulin that is produced. Both issues result in high blood sugar levels, so the objective of treatment is to return sugar levels to normal on a long-term basis. The majority of cats are Type ll diabetics – in other words, “non-insulin dependent” diabetics. This doesn’t mean they won’t need insulin to control the disease, but it does imply that there may be greater opportunity for using control options other than just insulin.

The exact cause of feline diabetes is not clearly understood, although it has been determined that it is more common in males, certain breeds, sometimes secondary to another disease (e.g. feline hyperthyroidism), and is most commonly seen in older, obese cats. It has been estimated that anywhere from 40-60% of cats are overweight and at least half of those are obese.

We love our cats and as such, we indulge them with treats and with food, often feeding too much of both. In addition, indoor cats, while protected from the dangers of the outside world, tend to be less active and more inclined to become couch potatoes.

Symptoms and diagnosis of diabetes in cats

Typical signs of diabetes in cats vary with the stage of the disease, but usually you will notice increased thirst, urination and appetite. As the disease advances unchecked, you may also see:

  • Weight loss
  • Poor coat
  • Abnormal rear end gait
  • Vomiting
  • Dehydration

Due to the fact that none of these signs are specific to diabetes, a diagnosis is readily achieved with blood and urine tests. Like so many diseases, it is very important to diagnose diabetes early, before all the secondary complications develop – such as neurological dysfunctions. While the diagnosis is usually straightforward, when it comes to cats, the treatment and control is not. In fact, in almost every aspect of veterinary medicine, cats can be unique and very challenging.

Treatment of diabetes in cats

If detected early enough and your cat easily accepts pills, your veterinarian may want to try oral drugs to lower the blood sugar values. However, most cats will require some form of insulin, usually twice a day. There are many types of insulin and each cat will respond differently. Hence, in the initial stages of diabetes control, regular testing of the blood is required and you’ll need to keep in close touch with their veterinarian.

Along with insulin, diet is very important in controlling diabetes. Special commercial therapeutic diets have been formulated to closely mimic the natural diet of non-domesticated cats – i.e. a diet that is high in protein and low in carbohydrates; the so-called Catkins diet!

Bringing it all together

Diabetes is a complex and often frustrating disease, especially with cats. An additional complicating factor is that it is not unusual, as is the case with people with Type ll diabetes, for a cat, months or years later and who is now at an ideal body weight, to suddenly no longer require insulin. Consequently, even if cat has been very well balanced on insulin for an extended time period, you need to constantly monitor their well-being as the “normal” amount of insulin may quickly lower the blood sugar levels far too low. Hence, any change in normal behaviour needs to be reported to your veterinarian immediately.

Diabetes requires considerable owner dedication and close communication with your veterinarian in order to be properly controlled and maintained. It requires a great deal of patience. Although their lives may be shortened somewhat by the disease, many cats can still live long and happy lives once diagnosed.

The best solution is prevention. While some contributing factors to diabetes, such as genetics, are hard to control, you can ensure your cat is kept at a healthy weight throughout their life. Obesity is a leading cause of diabetes and keeping a pet lean may just be the key to prevention.