The Signs, Diagnosis & Types of Diabetes Mellitus in Cats

Feline diabetes can be a daunting and difficult disorder to manage. But understanding it better can help in managing it if you have a diabetic kitty. If you don’t have a diabetic cat, understanding that the disease is preventable for many cats and knowing what steps to take can be crucial for keeping your cat healthy and diabetes-free.

There has been an approximate increase of 18% in prevalence of feline diabetes since 2006 and 1 in 230 cats can be affected. Although diabetes can only be managed in most cases and is not curable, the quicker you can detect it in your pet cat, the faster you can get it treated.

There are a lot of signs to watch for to help you detect if your cat has diabetes, so let’s go ahead and review them, along with any expectations to have, so you can be better prepared and focus on prevention.

black cat

Diabetes 101

Diabetes and more specifically diabetes mellitus, can affect all mammals. In general, when a cat eats, some of that food is broken down into simple sugars that end up in the bloodstream. Insulin produced by the pancreas is needed by the body to take those sugars in the bloodstream and put them where the body needs them. With diabetes, the body either can’t produce insulin, or becomes resistant to its effects.

There are two types of animal diabetes: type 1 and type 2. With type 1 diabetes, the body is not producing enough insulin. With type 2 diabetes, your pet’s body has developed resistance to insulin, meaning that blood sugar can’t be controlled even with the presence of sufficient insulin being produced.

Type 1 diabetes is most commonly seen in dogs. While cats can also be affected by type 1 diabetes, they most often develop type 2 diabetes.

Symptoms Of Feline Diabetes Mellitus

It is critical to understand the signs of diabetes to look for in your cat, because if it is left undetected, diabetes can make a kitty very sick and a cat can even die if not treated.

The common signs of feline diabetes are as follows,

1. Weight Loss

Since a cat with diabetes cannot utilize insulin adequately, the body turns to other parts to get the energy it needs. Your diabetic feline will lose weight even though she’s eating more than she should. There can also be instances where your cat has lost her appetite, resulting in weight loss.

2. Excessive Urination

If you notice your cat urinating more often or if there are larger urine clumps in the litter box, this is also a sign that your cat may have diabetes. The excessive sugar in the bloodstream spills over into your cat’s urine. The excessive sugar in the urine pulls extra water with it, leading to more urine production.

This process also results in dehydration, making your cat thirsty all the time.

3. Lowered Or “Plantigrade” Stance

Cats usually walk on their tip toes with their hind feet. When diabetes goes undetected, it may result in damage to nerves in the hind limbs, causing a cat to walk flat-footed with the back feet, which is called a plantigrade stance.

  1. Hyperglycemia

Hyperglycemia refers to the blood sugar being too high, and results from diabetes being undetected and untreated. Hyperglycemia leads to the signs already reviewed, but can also make cats lethargic, or tired all the time with less energy than usual.

  1. Diabetic Ketoacidosis

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a severe complication of diabetes. Since the body can’t utilize sugar, it breaks down fat. The break-down product of fat is called a ketone. Lots of ketones in the body is toxic, leading to inappetance and vomiting. Fortunately many cats can be diagnosed with diabetes before this complication results, but if it does happen, it is a medical emergency.

What Are The Causes And How To Prevent It?

1. Lack of Exercise

Your kitty may develop diabetes if he’s not getting enough exercise. Cats need to be active so they can use the insulin in their body more efficiently to decrease the risk of diabetes.

2. High-carbohydrates/Low Protein Diet

Carbohydrates are complex sugars found to some degree in all pet foods. But a food too high in carbohydrates can be detrimental. Your cat’s pancreas will produce excessive insulin when he eats food high in carbohydrates, which may lead to diabetes. If combined with a low protein diet, your cat will have no avenues to get the energy he needs.

Your cat should have a low carbohydrate/high protein diet to lessen the risk of diabetes. This is also to manage glucose levels in your cat’s diet.

3. Pancreas-related Causes

Sometimes, a cat’s own pancreatic cells are attacked by her own immune system. This affects the production of insulin and may result in type 1 diabetes.

Similarly, if a cat develops pancreatitis, the inflammation can damage insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, which can also lead to type 1 diabetes.

  1. Medicines For Other Illnesses

If your cat has asthma or allergies, some medicines that can help with these conditions can predispose her to diabetes. This is especially true of steroids, like prednisolone. This is why it’s best to keep a good working relationship with your vet, to help your allergy-prone kitty while reducing the risk for diabetes.

5. Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s disease involves an overproduction of cortisol. This makes your cat’s body less responsive to insulin which may result in diabetes. This condition is uncommon in cats and is often caused by an adrenal gland tumor.

Surgical removal of an adrenal gland tumor may be beneficial, but cats may still need insulin injections if they develop diabetes.

  1. Obesity

It is common to leave food out and allow a cat to snack as she likes during the day. But make sure to watch your kitty’s weight very carefully. Annual exams to the vet would be a minimum to monitor weight every year. Some cats will over-eat if allowed to, leading to obesity.

Feline obesity is the number one risk factor predisposing cats to diabetes. Meal-feeding and controlling how much food your cat gets during the day is important for prevention. Your vet can help you determine how many calories your kitty needs per day.

7. Acromegaly

In rare cases, the pituitary glands of your cat can produce excessive growth hormones leading to a condition called acromegaly. This results in your cat’s body rejecting insulin, leading to diabetes. Unfortunately, this condition can be very difficult to manage and carries a poor long-term prognosis.

Diagnosing Diabetes

If you have noticed some of the signs of diabetes discussed, it’s best to take your kitty to the vet so he or she can test your cat for diabetes. Your vet will fully examine your cat and will also ask for a complete health history to help in proper diagnosis. Often, blood and urine samples will be taken to test for excessive glucose levels.

A simple blood sugar reading can be taken as a screening test, but since cats can often be stressed at the vet’s office and stress can elevate blood sugar levels, another test called fructosamine may be recommended. Fructosamine levels are not affected by stress and can help see if a cat’s blood sugar levels have been chronically elevated.

Most cats at the time of diagnosis will have high levels of glucose in the urine too. A urine test can also check for ketones to make sure your kitty has not developed a severe complication of diabetes as previously discussed.

Treating Diabetes

If your kitty has been diagnosed with diabetes, a treatment plan is best discussed with your vet, who understands your cat’s medical needs. However, here are the main components of managing diabetes in cats. 

  • Insulin injections

All diabetic pets need to be treated with insulin injections. Other alternative methods of managing diabetes, as seen in people, are being investigated but have not proven reliable in cats yet. Glargine insulin is most commonly used in cats and can only be obtained with a prescription from your vet. Insulin injections consist of giving a small amount of liquid insulin with a needle and syringe, under your cat’s skin, twice a day. Fortunately, most cats tolerate this process well.

It’s very important to determine insulin levels based on blood glucose curves (discussed below). Giving too much insulin can lead to hypoglycemia, or blood sugar that is too low. Hypoglycemia is very serious and can lead to vomiting, seizures, and even death.

  • Prescription Diet

A diet higher in certain types of fiber helps to curb blood glucose elevations after eating, keeping sugar levels more even during the day. These diets may also be lower in carbs and higher in protein. Most over the counter diets cannot achieve the proper percentages of these nutrients needed.

  • Controlled feeding

Meal feeding only in the morning and evening is extremely important to prevent any blood sugar increases in the middle of the day. You will have trouble controlling diabetes in your kitty if he is eating food throughout the day.

  • Blood Sugar Monitoring

Getting several blood sugar levels during a twelve hour period, which is called a blood glucose curve, is the most accurate way to determine the proper amount of insulin to use for each injection. Your vet will likely recommend a curve at the vet clinic or hospital, after starting your cat on insulin initially. You can learn to check blood sugar levels on your kitty at home, which can be very helpful and is more cost-effective in the long-run. Often, once a good dose of insulin is determined, a curve only needs to be checked every couple of months, or if your cat shows any change in her condition.

giving medicine to sick cat

Expectations

Even when we know more about the disease, diabetes can be very difficult to manage and requires a commitment to keeping a strict schedule for insulin injections, a strict diet regimen, and keeping your vet involved with your kitty’s care.

Unfortunately, without pet insurance, diabetes can be very expensive to manage, as a bottle of insulin can cost a couple hundred dollars in many cases. Your vet can also help you with some cost-effective tips that are also safe to keep a lower impact on your budget and keep your kitty well-managed.

Diabetes is a difficult disease, but can be managed effectively when in partnership with your vet. With proper insulin and dietary management, some cats can go into remission, where they will no longer require insulin, but should be continued on a special diet. Cats in remission can also revert back to being diabetic, so it is important to always stay in tune with any changes your cat is experiencing.

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