Plus, the warning signs you need to watch out for.

By Caroline Biggs
May 05, 2020
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cat laying down on the sofa
Credit: kaorinne / Getty Images

Much like humans, certain cats are at risk for diabetes. Feline diabetes mellitus (DM) is an endocrine (hormonal) disorder, which occurs similarly to the way it does in humans: either when your cat's pancreas doesn't produce the amount of insulin your cat needs (Type 1 diabetes) or when your cat doesn't respond appropriately to the insulin that is being produced (Type 2 diabetes)," explains Dr. Jamie Richardson, chief of medical staff at Small Door Veterinary. "Cats more commonly suffer from Type 2 diabetes, but with either type of diabetes, it means that your cat's body can't effectively process glucose."

While there is no specific cure for feline diabetes in terms of prognosis, with proper management, diabetic cats can still live active, healthy lives. "Between 0.2 and 1 percent of cats in the general population are believed to suffer from diabetes," says Dr. Chad Dodd, a veterinarian for YuMOVE. "Middle-aged to older cats are most commonly affected, and the condition is more often seen in overweight, neutered male cats over eight years of age, and cats that exclusively eat a high carbohydrate diet."

The Symptoms

Dr. Richardson says the clinical signs of diabetes in cats may include increased thirst and urination, weight loss, lethargy, and neurological symptoms, such as walking with the ankles of their hind legs on the floor. "The symptoms of diabetes in cats can be hard to recognize initially," she explains. "It progresses slowly, and cat owners may not see anything unusual at first. Litter boxes make it hard to keep track of your cat's urination, but if you notice more urine than usual or if your cat starts peeing outside of the box for no other apparent reason and losing weight despite a healthy appetite, your cat could be showing signs of diabetes."

The Cause

According to Dr. Richardson, there are a number of common causes and factors that may predispose cats to develop diabetes, including obesity, chronic inflammation of the pancreas (called pancreatitis), and certain drugs. "While diabetes in cats cannot always be prevented, keeping your cat at a healthy weight and feeding them a balanced diet may help reduce their risk of developing this disease," she says. "As your cat ages, monitor weight, eating and drinking habits, and urination as best as you can."

Preventative Steps

Knowing that obesity puts cats at a higher risk of diabetes, Dr. Dodd says there are a number of steps pet owners can take to reduce the risk of their cats developing the disease. "One of the most important and easiest steps is to feed cats low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets," he says. "While there is no general consensus on the optimal levels of proteins and carbohydrates, it has been clearly documented in clinical studies that cats thrive when fed high-protein, low carbohydrate diets."

How to Treat Feline Diabetes

To successfully manage feline diabetes, Dr. Dodd says cat owners must work closely with their veterinarian to monitor their cat's response to treatment. "Initial treatment of diabetes in cats typically involves appropriate dietary management with a high-protein diet in conjunction with twice daily injections of a basal insulin," he says. "Commercial, 'prescription' diets designed for diabetic cats are also available—just be sure to ask your veterinarian which diet is best for your diabetic cat."

What Happens If You Don't Treat Feline Diabetes?

Like any other untreated illness, Dr. Dodd says diabetes in cats can go from bad to worse when ignored. "Untreated or poorly treated diabetes mellitus can result in a serious life-threatening complication called diabetic ketoacidosis," says Dr. Dodd. "This is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment and hospitalization to correct. Signs of ketoacidosis include increased thirst and urination, lethargy, weakness, decreased appetite, and trouble breathing. If your cat has any of these signs, take your pet to a veterinarian immediately."

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