Diabetes in cats is an increasingly recognized and diagnosed health problem. Feline diabetes most commonly occurs in cats over 7 years old, as a previously healthy cat may begin exhibiting symptoms that may indicate diabetes.
Fortunately, through careful treatment and management, cats with diabetes can go on to live happy, normal lives. Quick diagnosis, aggressive early management and especially by using special diets for diabetic cats, many cats diagnosed with diabetes can be easily maintained with their disease, and in some cases may even go into a diabetic remission.
Approximately 80% of cats that develop diabetes will develop type-2 or sugar diabetes. In humans, as well as animals, diabetes is the inability of the hormone insulin to balance glucose levels in the blood.
The food animals ingest is converted into glucose in the body, traveling through the bloodstream, feeding cells and creating energy. Insulin in the body is the vehicle that allows cells to get their energy from the bloodstream. In normal circumstances, after the glucose enters the body, cells in the pancreas release insulin, and it is then distributed to cells in the body, allowing them to “capture” the glucose for their own use.
The pancreas are responsible for the amount of insulin produced in the body- just enough to carefully balance the glucose level in the blood, to avoid them rising too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia). However, in animals with type-2 diabetes, the body’s cells stop responding correctly to insulin. This results in excessively high blood glucose levels, as the body is unable to process the excess glucose.
The early signs of diabetes in cats are weight loss, an increased or even voracious appetite, and increased water drinking and urination. As the inability to process glucose progresses, the brain begins to send signals to eat more, to take in more glucose. Glucose levels in the blood rise, but are unable to be utilized due to the lack of insulin, and the starved cells of the body turn to breaking down fat and muscle protein to convert into sugars by the liver. As the cycle progresses, the glucose build up in the blood leaks into the urinary tract, and draws water from the cells in, causing the cat to urinate frequently, leading to a constant state of dehydration despite increased water intake.
Your veterinarian can make a diagnosis of diabetes based on a physical exam of your cat, and a description of your cats recent behavior and clinical signs. Most importantly, blood and urine samples can help to make a definitive diagnosis on your cat, and allow treatment to begin.
Treatment of diabetes is multifaceted, and often relies on a combination of long-lasting insulin injections, specially prepared diets for diabetic cats, and careful blood level monitoring.
Diets for diabetic cats are the cornerstone for treating feline diabetes. Research has shown a link between the development of diabetes in cats and regular commercially prepared dry-food diets. Dry food is typically comprised of a high level of carbohydrates, flooding the pancreas over time with a constant high-sugar intake. By feeding a low-carbohydrate diet, the amount of insulin needed is reduced, and the variations in blood-sugar levels are kept small and easy to predict and follow.
Your veterinarian can help you to select an appropriate low-carbohydrate diet for your cat. While canned, low-carbohydrate preparations are preferable (canned foods naturally have lower levels of carbs than dry, as well as higher levels of digestible protein), cats that will not eat wet food can be fed specially prepared prescription dry food diets. Diets that have between 3% and 9% of their calories from carbohydrates are reccomended to be the best choice for managing diabetic cats.
In addition to their great benefit in helping regulate blood sugar levels and lessen insulin requirements, lower-carb diets will help overweight cats loose weight. Many diabetic cats are overweight, and reducing their weight to a more normal level can have many health advantages, both directly and indirectly to the diabetes.
Diabetic cats should be fed their prescribed diet only, without additional treats or food changes. Once a diabetic cat is regulated on a particular food, changing that food can completely change their insulin requirements- so it is important that any management program ensure that the diet a diabetic cat is the only one that is fed.
A stable diet is especially important for the second phase of treatment- insulin injections. While a small number of cats may be controlled diabetics with diet changes alone, most cats require supplemental insulin to regulate their blood levels. In most cases, a single slow-acting dose of insulin, administered via injection twice daily, along with the special diet will act to keep the blood sugar level at the optimal level all day.
While the prospect of giving insulin injections to your cat is often a daunting one, your veterinarian will help to show you the proper method and location for the injection, allowing you to become comfortable with the procedure before having to do it at home. Most cats do not even notice the tiny insulin needle, and make drug administration a breeze.
Finding a balance between diet and insulin dosages can be the trickiest part of trying to manage a newly diagnosed diabetic. Your veterinarian may run several “glucose curve” tests, where blood sugar levels are monitored at several points throughout a day to ensure that they are not dipping too low or going to high after meals or insulin injections. You may be asked to test your cats urine at home periodically with Keto-sticks, which can indicate an excessive amount of glucose in the urine, a sign of uncontrolled diabetes.
Often good diabetes management can be accomplished in just a few weeks, and once the diabetes has become well controlled, monitoring blood work may only be needed every 6 months or so to ensure insulin requirements are not changing, and to ensure the cats other body systems (kidneys, liver, etc) are not having any problems.
Although a diagnosis of diabetes in your can be a intimidating prospect, by working carefully with your vet to carefully diagnose and estabilish a treatment plan, your cat can continue to live a long and virtually normal life, unaffected by his diabetes. Through insulin and diets for diabetic cats, diabetes can be managed, and sometimes even reversed.