Diabetes in cats


Like people, cats can get Diabetes Type 1 (where the pancreas ceases to produce insulin in the right quantity or at all) and Type 2 (which occurs because the body cannot process insulin). Again like people, Type 2 will tend to occur in the older, obese cat. More male cats than females are affected by diabetes and in the total population around 1 in 500 cats will become diabetic. Secondary diabetes due to hyperthyroidism and other conditions also sometimes occurs, but only accounts for a small number of cases.

The incidence of diabetes of all kinds is relatively low compared to some other cat illnesses, but because of the potentially very serious outcomes if the condition is not spotted quickly, it is important to consult a vet if your cats shows any of the symptoms of diabetes, even though they are shared by other less serious conditions. Death can occur very quickly if a coma develops and so speed is very much of the essence.

Symptoms of Diabetes in Cats

Probably the first sign that something is wrong in the diabetic cat is loss of weight and loss of appetite. The cat also probably drinks and urinates to excess; in a house cat this is apparent very quickly, but in the outdoor cat this symptom may not show at first, as cats actually prefer water in its natural state rather than from the tap and so will slake its thirst from puddles and other standing water for preference. Although the cat is drinking more, its increased urine output will soon cause dehydration and this should be checked if your cat seems under the weather and is off its food as this is a way of checking even in an outdoor cat. 

Poor Coat Condition

When the cat has been suffering from diabetes for a while – but this will still probably be for only about a week or so – the coat will be in poor condition and the animal may begin vomiting. When dehydration becomes serious – not helped if the cat has vomited – the cat will have difficulty breathing as oxygen exchange relies on adequately moisture filled air in the lung. A sign which hopefully will not be apparent, as it is one of later diabetic development, is diabetic neuropathy. This condition occurs when nerve damage has taken place and usually shows itself by limb weakness or a limp. If all of these symptoms are present, the cat is in a bad way and may lapse into a coma and quickly die; it should be taken to a vet as soon as possible.

Diagnosis of Diabetes

With cats, diagnosis is not simply a matter of a quick glucose test on a drop of blood. Cats are among the more easily stressed animals which are found in vets’ waiting rooms and their blood glucose can rocket in these conditions. Most vets will therefore either perform a blood and an urine test or keep the cat in overnight to let it calm down and to give the nursing staff a chance to monitor its condition. One thing that diabetes results in is glucose in the urine, as the glomeruli in the kidneys cannot cope with the huge amounts of glucose being carried to them in the blood and a lot of glucose leaches through; in health, no sugar is found in the urine of any mammal. Once the diabetes diagnosis is confirmed, the vet will then go on to determine which type the cat is suffering from. This is not just an academic exercise; it is important for treatment and also to rule out an underlying problem with another organ which may account for the condition’s onset.

Causes of Diabetes

There is not always a cause; sometimes the cat develops it as a pre-disposed condition. Type 2 diabetes is often accelerated by obesity and a poor diet. Many vets believe that a diet solely consisting of dried cat food will predispose a cat to diabetes, but as the prevalence of all types of diabetes in cats is only 0.2% and the majority of cats eat a convenience cat food diet, this would be hard to prove or disprove. It is certainly true, however, that cats with Type 2 are usually obese, so keeping an eye on your cat’s weight will certainly help protect it from the onset of diabetes as well as other obesity related conditions such as heart disease and asthma. 

Treatment of Diabetes

If your cat has Type 1 diabetes, it will certainly need insulin injections. This may also be the case if it has Type 2, but this type can often be controlled by diet. Not all owners of cats can cope with injections and in these cases a regime must be instigated perhaps involving a friend or neighbour who does not mind doing it, or a vet or animal professional. This may prove costly, so it is best if the owner can be trained to give the injections and also to test the glucose level; regular testing is essential to give the right amount of insulin and is vital in the early weeks after diagnosis.

Back to Normal?

When the diabetes is controlled, the animal (and its owner!) can live a virtually normal life with care, with an appropriate diet and vigilance from the owner to check for signs of hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose) which may result from an overdose of insulin and can be rapidly fatal. The owner should be trained in the understanding of the condition as quick response and knowing when to give glucose (golden syrup or a similar sugar rubbed on the gums is usually enough) and when to give insulin and when to run for the vet will probably be the difference between life and death for the cat. The best advice is – get to know your cat and how to respond to any changes.


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