Whether you’re a seasoned pet parent or a brand new one, a sudden illness in a pet can be scary. You have a lot of questions and you need all the answers now.
On-going medical issues, like diabetes in cats, take even more consideration. From medication to possible lifestyle changes, there’s a lot to learn. The first thing to keep in mind is that many diabetic cats can lead long lives.
“Diabetes mellitus is not a death sentence,” says Dr. Sasha Gibbons, of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut. “There are many economical ways to manage diabetes.”
What is Feline Diabetes?
Cat diabetes, or diabetes mellitus, means that a cat’s body can’t respond to or make insulin, similar to diabetes in humans. And like humans, cats can have different types of diabetes.
Types of Diabetes in Cats
There are two types of feline diabetes.
- Type 1: An autoimmune disease where the cat’s body destroys insulin-producing cells
- Type 2: The cat’s body produces insulin, but cells have a decreased sensitivity to insulin.
Dr. Lucas White of Sunset Veterinary Clinic in Edmond, Oklahoma says that around 80 percent of cats with diabetes have type 2.
What Causes Diabetes in Cats?
There’s no single cause of diabetes in cats. Type 1 diabetes can occur in any cat, but type 2 diabetes primarily occurs when a cat is overweight.
“Just like people, there is an association between obesity and a high-carbohydrate diet,” Gibbons says. “However, these two factors alone do not guarantee a cat will develop diabetes. Genetics [play] a major role. Pancreatitis is another risk factor. Less common causes include pancreatic trauma, growths, or autoimmune disease.”
White adds that in addition to overweight cats, the Burmese breed seems more prone to developing diabetes.
Cat Diabetes Symptoms
White explains that symptoms of diabetes in cats can be hard to spot. “Cats in general can mask their symptoms of illness really well, so symptoms can be difficult to discern,” he says.
However, there are still some signs of diabetes in cats that you might see:
- Increased water intake
- Urinating more frequently
- Weight loss
- Difficulty walking
- Increased appetite
Gibbons says that increased water consumption is one of the cat diabetes symptoms that’s often seen by pet parents. “Owners will either notice their cat sitting at the water bowl more frequently, for longer periods of time, or noticing they have to fill the water bowl more often,” she says.
Diagnosing Feline Diabetes
If your cat is experiencing possible symptoms of diabetes, it’s time to head to a veterinarian. A blood test is required before a cat can be diagnosed. Exactly what kind of test will depend on your veterinarian.
Gibbons says a simple blood sugar test could cost as low as $25, but doesn’t necessarily give a true picture of a cat’s health.
“Cats are prone to elevations in blood sugar from stress, so a solitary blood sugar reading sometimes can be difficult to evaluate,” she says, noting that a complete blood panel is often required, which could cost around $500.
How to Treat Diabetes in Cats
Diabetes in cats can’t be cured, but it is possible for cats with type 2 diabetes to go into remission and no longer need insulin, Gibbons says. This requires dietary changes and/or insulin therapy.
The best way for pet parents to help a diabetic cat is to listen to their veterinarian’s advice regarding diet or necessary medications.
Diabetes Medications for Cats
If a cat’s diabetes requires medication, it’s likely that insulin will be prescribed and it will need to be injected once or twice a day.
“We will instruct the pet parent in how to draw up the insulin in the syringe and how to administer it to their cat,” White says. “Most cats tolerate the injections fairly well. There are several types of insulin that can be used and your veterinarian will prescribe the type they think will work best for your cat.”
Common insulin medications for cats include:
- Insulin Glargine (Lantus)
- Isophane insulin (Novolin N)
As with humans, pet medications can be pricey. Gibbons says that the types of insulin can vary greatly in cost and every type won’t work for every cat. How quickly your cat goes through a vial of insulin can depend on a number of things, including how often injections are needed.
In addition to medication cost, pet parents should know that they may also need to pay for needles, glucometers, insulin syringes, and more frequent veterinarian visits.
White urges pet parents to be frank with their veterinarian: “If your cat has diabetes, but the management options do not work for you, please have a honest conversation with your veterinarian about alternative options,” he says.
Cat Food for Diabetic Cats
Medications are one part of how to treat diabetes in cats. Diet is another important consideration, because it can help manage the disease and even help lead to remission.
If your cat is diagnosed with diabetes, your veterinarian may recommend a prescription cat food diet as opposed to an off-the-shelf variety. While those foods are fine for most healthy cats, diabetic cats need a specific mix to stay healthy.
“[Prescription] diets are high protein, low carbohydrate diets,” White says. “The higher protein helps maintain lean muscle mass to help keep their glucose metabolism up and lower carbohydrates help regulate their blood glucose.”
How to Prevent Diabetes in Cats
As an autoimmune disease, type 1 diabetes in cats can’t be prevented.
Type 2 diabetes, however, is related to a cat’s weight. So, the best prevention is keeping your pet at a healthy weight, White explains. Exercise and a balanced diet can help your cat maintain lean muscle mass, he adds.
If your cat is overweight, your veterinarian can make recommendations on exercises and diet changes that might help your cat get back to a healthy weight.
Don't miss our vet-approved pet care tips!
Sign up for our newsletter to stay in-the-know.