The Signs, Diagnosis & Types of Diabetes Mellitus in Cats

Feline diabetes can be a daunting and difficult disorder to manage, but understanding it can help to manage it if you have a diabetic kitty. If you don’t have a diabetic cat, understanding that it 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 approximately an 18% increase of feline diabetes since 2006, and 1 in 230 cats can be affected. Although diabetes is not curable, and can only be managed in most cases, the quicker you can detect it in your pet cat, the faster you can get it treated. A small percentage of cats can go into remission with the appropriate treatment.

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

black cat

Diabetes 101

Diabetes, more specifically diabetes mellitus, can affect all mammals. When a cat eats, some of that food is broken down into simple sugars that end up in the bloodstream. Insulin, which is produced by the pancreas, is needed by the body to take those sugars and place them where the body needs them the most. With diabetes, the body either can’t produce insulin on its own, 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 a resistance to insulin, meaning that blood sugar can’t be controlled, even if a  sufficient amount of insulin is 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. If it is left undetected, diabetes can make a cat very sick, or even cause death if not treated.

The most common signs of feline diabetes are as follows.

  • Weight Loss

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

  • Excessive Urination

Another sign that your cat may have diabetes is if you notice your cat urinating more often, or if there are larger urine clumps in the litter box. The excessive sugar in the bloodstream spills over into your cat’s urine, and pulls extra water with it, leading to more urine production. This process also results in dehydration, making your cat thirsty all the time.

  • Lowered Or “Plantigrade” Stance

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

  • Hyperglycemia

Hyperglycemia refers to blood sugar levels being too high, which is a result of diabetes going undetected and untreated. Hyperglycemia leads to the aforementioned signs, but can also make cats lethargic, or tired all the time with less energy than usual.

  • Diabetic Ketoacidosis

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a severe complication of diabetes. Since the body can’t utilize sugar, it starts to break down fat. The by-product of fat breakdown is called a ketone. A high level of ketones in the body is toxic, leading to a lack of appetite and vomiting. Fortunately, many cats can be diagnosed with diabetes before this complication results. However, if it does happen, it is considered a medical emergency.

What Are The Causes And How To Prevent It?

  • Lack of Exercise

Your kitty may develop diabetes if it’s not getting enough exercise. Cats need to be active so they are able to use the insulin in their body more efficiently, decreasing the risk of diabetes.

  • High-Carbohydrate/Low-Protein Diet

Carbohydrates are complex sugars found in all pet foods to some degree. However, foods that are too high in carbohydrates can be detrimental. Your cat’s pancreas will produce excessive insulin when it constantly eats food high in carbohydrates, which may lead to diabetes. If this is combined with a low protein diet, your cat will have no avenues to get the energy it needs. Your cat should have a low-carbohydrate/high-protein diet to lessen the risk of diabetes. This will also help manage glucose levels in your cat’s diet.

  • Pancreas-related Causes

Sometimes a cat’s pancreatic cells are attacked by their own immune system, which 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.

  • Medicines For Other Illnesses

If your cat has asthma or allergies, some medicines that can help with these conditions can predispose it 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 of diabetes.

  • Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s disease involves an overproduction of cortisol. An overproduction of cortisol 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 could be beneficial, but cats may still need insulin injections if they develop diabetes.

  • Obesity

It is common to leave food out and allow a cat to snack whenever they like throughout the day. However, you must make sure to watch your kitty’s weight very carefully. Annual exams to the vet would be the bare minimum to monitor your cat’s weight every year. Some cats will overeat if allowed to, leading to obesity.

Feline obesity is the number one risk factor that predisposes cats to diabetes. That’s because fat cells may become resistant to insulin, and so suppress its function. Controlling how much food your cat gets during the day and proper meal feeding is important for prevention. Your vet can help you determine how many calories your kitty needs every day.

  • Acromegaly

In extremely rare cases, the pituitary glands of your cat can produce excessive growth hormones, leading to a condition called acromegaly. This condition 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 these signs in your cat, it’s best to take your kitty to the vet so they 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. Blood and urine samples will often 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 which 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.

At the time of diagnosis, most cats will have high levels of glucose in the urine as well. 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. 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. Oral medications such as Glipizide promote the secretion of insulin from the pancreas and may be helpful for owners unable to give insulin injections. However, the stress of “pilling” may outweigh the benefit and injections usually are the best choice. Glargine insulin is most commonly used in cats, and can only be obtained with a prescription from your vet. Insulin injections consist of injecting 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 will help 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 nutrients needed.

  • Controlled feeding

Meal feeding only in the morning and evening is extremely important to prevent any blood sugar spikes 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, 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 initially starting your cat on insulin.  You can learn how to check your kitty’s blood sugar levels at home, which can be helpful and more cost-effective in the long-run. Oftentimes, 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. It 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 in many cases, a bottle of insulin can cost a couple of hundred dollars.  Your vet can also help you with some safe, yet cost-effective tips 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 that most often consists of high protein and low carbohydrate canned foods, some cats can go into remission. When this happens, they will no longer require insulin but should continue on a special diet. Cats in remission may 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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