Diabetes in Cats

What is Feline Diabetes?

Feline Diabetes, or Diabetes mellitus, is a medical condition that affects a cat’s ability to produce, or respond to, the hormone insulin. Produced by beta cells in the pancreas, insulin is responsible for regulating the amount of glucose or sugar inside the body. Without this function, sugar accumulates in the bloodstream and rises beyond normal levels.

What is Glucose?

Glucose is a form of sugar that comes from food. Similar to humans, a cat’s body is designed to break down food components, like carbohydrates, into glucose and distribute it to different parts of the body through the bloodstream. However, insulin is needed in order for glucose to enter the cells. Like a key is to a doorknob, insulin is the one that “unlocks” the cell barrier to allow glucose to pass through, letting the body convert glucose into energy and reducing the amount of sugar in the bloodstream.

Types

There are two main types of Feline Diabetes: Type I or Insulin-Dependent Diabetes, which impairs a diabetic cat’s ability from creating its own insulin, and Type II or Insulin-Resistant Diabetes, which prevents the body from responding normally to the presence of insulin.

Type I Diabetes (Insulin-Dependent Diabetes)

Normally, the pancreas produces insulin in situations where the levels of glucose in the blood increases, like after a meal. This happens because the body is working to allow excess glucose to enter the cells for conversion and normalize the amount of sugar present in the bloodstream. However, in cats with type I diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin to effectively regulate blood sugar levels.

Type II Diabetes (Insulin-Resistant Diabetes

Type II diabetes is the most common type of diabetes in cats. It is mainly associated with obesity and the overconsumption of foods that are high in carbohydrates and unhealthy fats, which causes a significant increase in blood glucose levels. Unlike type I diabetes, type II diabetes does not prevent the pancreas from producing insulin but instead impairs the body’s ability to respond to it. This is because, over time, constant exposure to large amounts of sugar reduces the body’s sensitivity to insulin and causes insulin resistance. In most cases, however, type II diabetes is reversible through exercise, weight loss, and a healthy diet.

Causes

There is no specific cause for Feline Diabetes, but certain factors can predispose cats to the condition. Since the majority of cats that do have diabetes suffer from type II or insulin-resistant diabetes, obesity and overeating are considered the two leading causes. However, situations that overexpose the body to steroids, whether in the form of medications or a disorder that prompts the body to overproduce steroid hormones (Cushing’s syndrome), can also increase a cat’s chances of developing the condition. Fortunately, through immediate glucose management and healthy living, most cats with type II diabetes are able to make a full recovery.

Type I diabetes, on other hand, may develop as a result of damage or destruction of the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas. Common causes of this type of diabetes include, chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), and autoimmune disorders, which impair the immune system’s ability to distinguish healthy tissues from harmful pathogens and cause the body to attack itself.

Risk Factors

Although any cat can develop diabetes, some cats may be more at risk than others. It is observed that a cat’s age, gender, breed, weight, and medications may also play a role in his or her susceptibility.

Age

Feline Diabetes is more common in middle-aged and senior cats, particularly those that are 6 to 13 years old, and extremely rare in young cats.

Gender

Compared to both fixed and unfixed female cats, neutered male cats are known to be more prone to developing Feline Diabetes.

Breed

Although cats of any breed can develop diabetes, Burmese and Siamese cats are found to be more likely to develop the condition.

Obesity

Overeating and physical inactivity significantly increase a cat’s chances of developing Feline Diabetes, especially type II or insulin-resistant diabetes.

Cushing’s Syndrome

Although rare in cats, Cushing’s syndrome, a medical disorder that causes the adrenal glands of the body to overproduce the steroid hormone cortisol, can also trigger the development of type II or insulin-resistant diabetes by reducing the body’s sensitivity to insulin.

Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of Feline Diabetes may vary from cat to cat. The condition may also present itself differently depending on how much it has progressed. The most common signs include excessive thirst and frequent urination, but more severe complications, such as loss of muscle coordination and walking difficulties, may also be seen in some diabetic cats.

Early Signs

Aside from excessive thirst and frequent urination, early signs of Feline Diabetes also include, weight loss, increased appetite, and urinary incontinence (inability to control urination). Since diabetic cats do not have the ability to properly absorb glucose, which is the body’s main source of energy, stored proteins and fats are broken down to be used as fuel instead. This causes extreme hunger and drastic shedding of weight.

Additionally, in an attempt to normalize the levels of glucose in the body, the kidneys also try to push some of the sugar out through urine. However, as large amounts of glucose are released out of the body it pulls excessive volumes of water as well, causing diabetic cats to urinate more than usual and have a hard time maintaining normal litterbox habits.

Advanced Signs

Cats that have advanced Feline Diabetes may experience walking difficulties, hind leg weakness, balance problems, exhaustion, loss of appetite, vomiting, and depression or loss of interest in regular activities, like playing, running, climbing, and jumping. Most of the time, cats that exhibit these symptoms are in need of immediate veterinary attention and must be taken to the animal clinic right away.

Vomiting, for instance, is often a sign of either hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which are both extremely dangerous and can lead to seizures, brain damage, coma, and even death if left untreated.

Diagnosis

To find out if a cat has Feline Diabetes, veterinarians usually perform a blood test that shows the concentration of glucose in his or her bloodstream. However, the mere stress of being brought to the animal clinic can cause a temporary spike in his or her blood sugar levels, which can cause a misdiagnosis. To prevent this from happening, veterinarians do the following:

Ask for Clinical Signs

If a cat is suspected to have Feline Diabetes, veterinarians usually ask the owners about the signs or behavioral changes that they have noticed, such as frequent urination, extreme thirst, or weight loss. Although these signs may also be caused by other disorders, knowing about them can help veterinarians narrow down the list of potential causes.

Fructosamine Blood Test

Since stress can lead to elevated blood glucose levels in cats, veterinarians focus on the concentration of fructosamine (a protein that has an attached glucose) in the bloodstream instead. Unlike glucose, fructosamine is not significantly affected by stress, so it provides a more accurate measurement of blood sugar levels.

Urinalysis

A urinalysis or urine test is a diagnostic tool that allows veterinarians to examine the appearance, contents, and concentration of a cat’s urine sample. The presence of glucose in the urine of a cat confirms that he or she has Feline Diabetes. Additionally, if white blood cells are seen, an infection may also be present.

Top 5 FAQ

How long do cats with diabetes live?

With the right diet and treatment regimen, most cats with diabetes are able to live long, healthy lives.

How much water should cats with diabetes drink?

It is important to allow cats with diabetes to drink as much water as they need since excessive thirst is due to the body trying to normalize blood glucose levels by pushing excess sugar out through urine.

What treats can cats with diabetes have?

There are plenty of over-the-counter cat treats that cats with diabetes can ocassionally enjoy, however, it is best to consult your veterinarian before getting one since he or she knows your cat’s specific needs.

Can cats with diabetes eat dry kibble?

Since dry cat foods or kibbles are generally high in carbohydates, owners of diabetic cats are advised to steer clear of them and instead, opt for canned cat foods.

Should cats with diabetes receive insulin shots if they don't eat?

If your diabetic cat is not eating, bring him or her to the animal hospital right away. If this is not possible, withhold insulin for at least 24 hours or until you get in touch with your veterinarian. He or she will need to evaluate your cat’s condition in order to decide when to continue insulin therapy.