What is diabetes in cats?
Cats with diabetes mellitus have a natural shortage of the hormone insulin (Type I), or are unable to properly process the insulin that is being produced (Type II).
The pancreas produces insulin, which it then sends around the body to help with the digestion of protein and carbohydrates. This is really important, as it then in turn prompts the body’s muscles and the liver to convert glucose into energy. So, a lack of insulin (or insulin resistance) can mean your cat can’t do this and can lead to a high level of glucose in the bloodstream (hyperglycaemia).
There are 2 types of diabetes in cats:
Insulin deficiency diabetes (Type I): Cats with a dysfunctional or damaged pancreas suffer from insulin deficiency diabetes.
Insulin resistant diabetes (Type II): Unlike dogs, this is the usual form of the disease that cats suffer from. It is very similar to the type two form of diabetes in humans.
What can cause diabetes in cats?
Genetic predisposition can mean that some breeds of cat are at higher risk of developing feline diabetes; for example, Burmese and Siamese cats are more prone to the condition. Male cats are also more likely to develop diabetes. Middle-aged and older animals are more likely to be affected, along with overweight and obese cats.
There are also other existing medical conditions that can develop into feline diabetes, including:
- thyroid disease
Symptoms of diabetes in cats
There are a few different ways you might be able to identify a cat developing diabetes. If your pet has any of the risk factors listed above it’s important to keep an eye out and bring them to a vet if you’re unsure.
The most common early signs of diabetes in cats include:
- Excessive thirst
- Increased urination
- Weight loss, despite normal or increased food intake
As the condition begins to advance, additional symptoms of feline diabetes can include:
- Enlarged liver
- Dull, poor appearance of the coat
- General weakness, lethargy, and lack of energy
- Loss of appetite
How is diabetes in cats diagnosed?
Diagnosis of feline diabetes mellitus requires a blood test to be taken at the vets. Make sure your cat has fasted (had no food intake) for the 12 hours before the test. At Animal Trust our vets have done thousands of blood tests like these, so will make sure your pet is as relaxed and comfortable as possible.
We also recommend additional blood tests, which will include a full blood count, biochemistry profile and testing of the cat’s urine (urinalysis). This will allow for a full assessment of your cat’s health, including the severity of the diabetes, any conditions that may be contributing to it, and complications relating to the diabetic state.
A diagnosis of feline diabetes will be based on appropriate clinical signs, and a persistently increased level of glucose level in the cat’s blood and urine.
How is cat diabetes treated?
One of the key factors in feline diabetes treatment is time. The earlier the condition is identified, the earlier a treatment plan can be implemented, and the greater the chances of a successful outcome. Your Animal Trust vet will discuss a treatment plan tailored just for your cat, but the most common ways to manage the condition are:
Diet is an extremely important part of managing diabetes in cats. For overweight cats, losing excess weight can reduce the severity of the diabetes, and occasionally resolve it completely. In general, a cat’s diet needs to be high in quality protein and low in carbohydrates. If your cat is diagnosed with diabetes, your vet can suggest dedicated prescription diets specifically designed to fulfil these needs.
Moderate, consistent exercise is required for most cats, in order to stop sudden spikes or drops in glucose levels. Regular exercise will also help with issues of weight and obesity, where required.
Most diabetic cats will need to have insulin injections every day. Your veterinary surgeon will teach you how to do this so you can administer your cat’s daily dose at home. We recommend placing the injection in a slightly different place day to day, which will help stop excess discomfort and irritation of the skin.
It’s really important to give the insulin injections at the same time every day, to avoid what’s called ‘piggybacking’. This can cause dangerously low blood glucose levels (hypoglycaemia). If you do miss an injection for any reason, continue the routine as normal from the next dose – do not inject an extra one or change the dosage. It’s imperative not to miss doses regularly, as this will make stabilising your cat’s diabetes much more difficult.
Oral treatments are often used in cases where injections aren’t possible. However it should be noted that these treatments are less effective than insulin at combating diabetes. There are also possible side effects associated with this method, and should not be given to cats with disease of the liver or kidneys.
Diabetes treatment for cats is lifelong. Regular mealtimes and (in most cases) daily insulin injections will be required to control blood sugar levels for your pet’s lifetime. In some cases, cats may go into diabetic remission when the condition is under control with good health and a stable diet. They can sometimes stay in this stage for months or even years, requiring minimal or no insulin during this time.
How to monitor a cat with diabetes?
It’s important to keep an eye on your cat to monitor any changes in health, which might be a sign that additional testing or different insulin dosages are needed. However, do not change your pet’s healthcare regimen without speaking to your vet first, as any alterations could be dangerous.
The most common ways diabetes in cats is monitored are:
Your cat being less thirsty, urinating less frequently and maintaining a stable weight are all good signs that treatment is working well.
If you are happy to, you can monitor your cat’s glucose level at home, using a special blood glucose monitor. Have a consultation with your vet or nurse before deciding to do this, and they’ll be happy to recommend the most reliable type to use. The monitors read a small droplet of blood, which allows you to monitor diabetic levels without causing your pet too much stress.
Dipsticks can be used to get accurate readings of the level of glucose present in a cat’s urine. At Animal Trust surgeries, we generally recommend dipsticks that test ketones as well as glucose levels. It’s important to remember that it’s almost certain that a cat with diabetes will have some level of glucose present during the day, but dipsticks are useful for monitoring changes in your pet’s condition.
What we will look for at the clinic:
Blood glucose curve
Your vet team will monitor your cat’s blood glucose – ideally over a 24-hour period – to assess the response to insulin and gauge minimum and maximum glucose levels. This is the most accurate method for measuring how a diabetic cat is responding to treatment and decide any further alterations that may be required. The blood glucose curve can be affected by stress levels, so it might not be possible to measure in all cases.
We can use a blood test to measure the patient’s response to insulin therapy. This test reflects the pet’s average glucose level over the past 14 days.
General health profile
This blood test will check for any other conditions which may be caused by or affected by diabetes. These can include electrolyte imbalances, pancreatitis and kidney or liver conditions.
Blood pressure monitoring
A high blood pressure (hypertension) is a common symptom of diabetes, so regular checks and consistent monitoring are important to avoid any future or long-term health complications, including blindness, organ failure and strokes.
Complications with feline diabetes
Getting a cat’s diabetes to a controllable level can often take several weeks or longer. We understand that this can be a frustration for owners and patients alike, but it’s important to remember that gradually making adjustments is vital for your cat’s comfort. Taking a long-term approach means we can base our diagnoses on carefully considered observations, and are aware of any other underlying conditions.
In some cases, cats do not respond to insulin as we’d expect. This can be due to:
- Underlying health problems such as acromegaly, certain steroid medications, thyroid disease, and/or pancreatitis.
- Problems with the storage or administration of insulin.
- Prolonged or short duration of insulin effect. If this happens, our team might try a different insulin format for your cat.
Life expectancy for cats with diabetes
In lots of cases, cats will manage well with injections and a healthy diet for several years, leading long, happy lives. However, underlying conditions are common, and sadly not all cases respond well to treatment. If you’re worried about your cat, get in touch with your local Animal Trust team for advice.
Emergency conditions associated with feline diabetes
If you think your cat has either of the following, please contact your local Animal Trust surgery immediately for advice.
A possibly life-threatening acute condition, ketoacidosis occurs when cells don’t receive enough glucose and have to use fat as a fuel. The condition can be set off by surgery, eating less, infection, stress levels or an underlying health condition. If your cat has ketoacidosis, they will be lethargic, dehydrated, possibly vomiting or breathing rapidly, and have sweet-smelling breath.
Hypoglycaemia is caused by a critically low blood sugar level. Hypoglycaemia in cats leads to symptoms like confusion, abnormal levels of hunger, restlessness, weakness, disorientation, decreased energy, loss of consciousness, seizures and tremors. The condition may be caused by an overdose of insulin, increased use of glucose (for example due to exercise or stress), or a lower consumption of food to counteract a normal insulin dose.
If your cat is conscious and hypoglycaemic, try to coax them into eating some food and then contact us. If your pet refuses to eat, is on the point of collapse, or is unconscious, we recommend applying glucose gel, honey or syrup to their gums, and then immediately contact your nearest Animal Trust surgery for advice.