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Diabetes In Cats: Key Facts You Should Know

8 min read

Updated - Sep 13th, 2022

Key Points

  • Feline diabetes occurs when your cat’s pancreas is unable to produce insulin, which normally helps regulate blood glucose levels. 
  • It can be caused by a number of factors, including obesity, age, and diseases like hyperthyroidism.
  • Diabetes in cats is generally not curable, but there are treatments that can help your cat lead a normal, happy life.

Feline diabetes, or diabetes mellitus, occurs when beta cells in the pancreas are unable to produce sufficient insulin, a hormone that attaches to cells and allows them to absorb glucose for energy. Glucose, of course, is just sugar: not the kind you find on the table at a diner, but the kind that’s in everything you and your cat eat. It’s what gives your cat the energy they need to do all of their favorite activities, from playing with toy mice to climbing up cat trees.

As you can probably imagine, a cat behaves very differently when they can’t absorb glucose. As a concerned pet parent, you may notice your cat eating a lot yet mysteriously losing weight, drinking excessive amounts of water, or walking strangely – leaving you to wonder what’s wrong with your furry friend. 

Symptoms 

The main sign of diabetes in cats is excessive weight loss despite a normal or increased appetite. This is mainly due to their inability to break down glucose into energy. Since they can’t make use of their normal energy source, your cat’s body will have to look to alternative sources. Most often, that means breaking down fat tissue – or even muscle tissue – for energy. 

Another symptom of diabetes in cats is excessive thirst and urination. When your cat can’t regulate the amount of sugar in their blood, that sugar can instead enter the urine, where it will pull in an excessive amount of water, leading to increased urination. This urine will often be very sticky and hard to clean up. Because your cat is losing more water, they’ll also be more thirsty and may start drinking from unusual places.

In extreme cases, feline diabetes may cause damage to hind limb nerves, causing your cat to develop an unusual stance where they walk on their heels instead of their paws (a “plantigrade” stance).

Causes 

There are two types of diabetes in cats. Type 1 diabetes is more serious, with the complete destruction of beta cells in the pancreas, but also rare. Type 2 diabetes is more common. There are still some cells producing insulin, but too few to allow the body to regulate glucose the way it would under normal circumstances.

One of the main risk factors for type II diabetes mellitus is obesity. Obese cats are 400% more likely to have this disease than cats with healthy body weight. Veterinarians recommend cat owners encourage an active lifestyle and a balanced diet in order to reduce their furry friend’s risk of developing diabetes from this factor. 

The use of steroids to treat conditions like asthma has also been linked to diabetes. Other conditions, including infections like pancreatitis, hyperthyroidism, and renal issues, can also cause complications that can lead to feline diabetes.

Other risk factors include age and gender – male cats are at higher risk of developing diabetes, and pets that have been neutered are more prone to developing the disease. A cat’s breed may also play a role, as Burmese cats might be more susceptible.

Diagnosis  

Feline diabetes can be difficult to diagnose. When you take your cat to the vet, you can expect a thorough examination for clinical signs of diabetes, questions about your cat’s medical history and laboratory tests to determine whether diabetes is the likely cause of your cat’s symptoms. 

Most tests look for elevated levels of glucose in the blood or urine. Glycosuria, or sugar in the urine, doesn’t occur in healthy cats (or people) – it’s the result of an excessive amount of glucose in the blood being removed from the urine. Your vet should have tools to test for glycosuria, but there are also tests that can easily be performed at home.

Measuring blood glucose levels is another key part of diagnosing feline diabetes mellitus. However, blood tests for elevated blood glucose can result in a false positive due to a condition called stress hyperglycemia, in which high-stress levels lead to a temporarily elevated blood glucose level. In order to rule this out, your vet may perform a test called a fructosamine concentration, which averages the cat’s blood sugar levels over two weeks.

Treatment 

Insulin therapy is the main method of treatment of diabetes in cats. You must inject your cat with insulin every twelve hours in order to maintain healthy blood glucose levels. (Unfortunately, oral medication isn’t as effective in cats as it is in humans.) It’s a matter of debate how you should time your meals, with some saying you should have your cat eat around the same time as you give them their injections, while others say it’s okay to let your cat eat on their own schedule.

Continuous monitoring of your cat’s blood glucose levels is essential both at the start of treatment and as it progresses. Your vet may want to perform blood glucose curves every few weeks. You perform blood glucose curves before injections and every 1-4 hours following during the day. These tests can be performed at your vet’s office or at home using testing strips.

Recovery and care 

Diabetes mellitus is generally not curable, in the sense that it doesn’t go away forever. There are cases of diabetic remission, which can last for months or years, but vets consider the condition one to be treated and lived with, rather than one to be cured once and for all. It’s entirely possible, however, for diabetic cats to retain a high quality of life.

As part of continual treatment, you’ll have to continue to give your cat insulin injections and monitor their blood glucose levels. Over time, as you become more accustomed to testing, you may not have to go into the vet’s office to perform blood glucose curves. What’s more, you won’t have to perform blood glucose curves every few weeks as they can be more spaced out. 

Additionally, there are continuous blood glucose monitoring systems that provide minute-by-minute readings of blood glucose levels over a period of weeks. However, many cats don’t tolerate these monitors well. 

In some cases, removing the factors which initially caused your cat to become predisposed to diabetes can help resolve the issue. For example, if your cat’s diabetes was caused by steroid therapy for another illness, taking them off this regimen can help.

Prevention 

As discussed above, obesity and inactivity can be contributing factors to the development of diabetes in cats. This means that it’s possible to decrease your cat’s chances of developing diabetes by avoiding these contributing factors. It’s pretty straightforward: you want your cat to lead a healthy life with healthy habits.

In other words, you should encourage your cat to maintain a healthy weight and be active. Toys and cat furniture can help with this, giving your cat regular opportunities to run around, hunt, and climb. By providing your cat with fun avenues for exercise and play, you decrease their chances of becoming overweight or even obese – and reduce their risk of developing diabetes mellitus.

Some vets also recommend a well-balanced, high-protein, and low-carbohydrate diet to help your cat avoid predispositions for diabetes. This kind of diet may be closer to what your cat would consume in the wild.

What to expect at the vet’s office

When you head to the vet, be prepared! Know your cat’s medical history in order to accurately answer questions that may help your veterinarian develop a diagnosis and treatment plan. For instance, if your cat has been prescribed corticosteroids, your vet needs to know that, as this may be a factor leading to your cat developing diabetes.

You can expect your veterinarian to run multiple tests on your cat’s urine and blood, and they may also perform additional tests in order to rule out other potential diagnoses. They may perform a fructosamine concentration test to distinguish between high blood glucose levels due to diabetes and levels caused by other diseases. 

Once the diagnosis has been confirmed, your vet will discuss treatment plans and recommend which type of insulin your cat should receive. They may also advise you to alter your cat’s diet and take steps to increase activity levels in their daily routine.

The bottom line

Feline diabetes is a serious condition. Without proper care, diabetic cats can face severe health consequences. Luckily, treatments are available to help your cat live a happy and full life.

FAQs

Is it possible to cure feline diabetes?

Although this disease is generally not considered curable, there are cases in which a cat’s diabetes symptoms have entered remission for months or even years. In some cases where lifestyle habits or other medications are causing feline diabetes, removing these factors can cause your cat’s diabetes to enter remission.

What is the difference between different kinds of insulin?

Different kinds of insulin vary in their source (what they’re derived from), how effective they may be at producing remission in symptoms, and how often they need to be administered – some only have to be administered once a day, instead of every 12 hours.

Does high blood glucose always indicate feline diabetes?

No – other conditions can lead to high levels of blood glucose in cats, including stress hyperglycemia. That’s why vets run additional tests in order to make sure that diabetes is the cause of your cat’s symptoms.

Does pet insurance cover feline diabetes?

The good news is that in most cases, the answer is yes! Pet insurance generally covers the costs of vet visits and medication associated with feline diabetes. The only cases in which it wouldn’t are those where your cat developed the condition before the beginning of coverage, or during a waiting period.

Did you know?

  • There is a third type of diabetes in cats which can result from hormones such as those produced during pregnancy.
  • Cats over seven years of age may be at a higher risk of developing feline diabetes.
  • With pet insurance, the costs of treatment for illnesses like diabetes can often be covered, helping diabetic cats get the care they need. Pumpkin Cat Insurance plans cover 90% of eligible vet bills, so you can worry less about cost, and more about care.


George is a copywriter who has lived alongside cats his entire life.