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Can Cats Get Diabetes?

Type 2 diabetes mellitus is becoming increasingly common in cats. It cannot be cured, but it can be managed.

Melvin Pena  |  Nov 4th 2014


Can cats get diabetes? Unfortunately, the answer is yes, and it’s a condition that’s becoming increasingly common. The form of diabetes that cats are most prone to developing is diabetes mellitus type 2. Feline diabetes cannot be cured, but it can be managed. With a portion-controlled diet and regular exercise, diabetes in cats can be prevented, delayed, or its effects mitigated. Let’s learn more about diabetes in cats and what can be done about it!

What is diabetes in cats?

Any definition of diabetes mellitus must begin with understanding the role of insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. Insulin helps to convert food into energy that can be absorbed and used by the cells that comprise a cat’s body. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not create enough insulin. In type 2, more common in cats, the body is unable to make sufficient use of the insulin that is present. Left untreated, type 2 diabetes can develop into type 1, which is more severe.

Diabetes mellitus is also called “sugar diabetes,” because the energy that a cat needs is derived from glucose, a sugar that can be processed by cells. A diabetic cat can be well fed and well cared for but still feel like he’s being starved because that food is not being converted to energy the cat needs to function. Although any cat can become diabetic, the cat demographic most frequently diagnosed with diabetes are older, overweight males.

How do cats get diabetes?

Regardless of gender, overweight and obese cats are at greatest risk of developing diabetes. While obesity is not causally linked to diabetes, obesity creates the conditions under which a cat’s digestion and filtration systems are overtaxed. Pancreatitis in cats, or inflammation of the pancreas, can limit or inhibit insulin production and is more common in overweight cats.

Symptoms of diabetes in cats

The four major symptoms of feline diabetes are changes in appetite, frequent urination, noticeably increased thirst, and fluctuations in weight. No matter how much or how well a cat eats, when insulin is not functioning normally, the cat is not getting the energy she needs. In the early stages of feline diabetes, a cat will try to compensate by eating more.

Eating more, the cat may gain weight in the short term, but the longer the condition is allowed to progress, the more likely it is that the cat will lose a significant amount of weight. Deprived of the energy it needs from glucose, a cat’s body will begin converting muscle and fat into what energy it can.

With hyperglycemia, all that excess sugar in the blood must be dealt with somehow. In cats, excess sugar is eliminated through urination. This puts extra strain on a cat’s kidneys, and some of that sugar in the urine can remain behind in the urinary tract. Given enough time, this can lead to painful urinary tract infections.

Accordingly, water loss is made up for by increased thirst. Cats with diabetes will return more and more often to their water dish in an effort to replace the water they are losing through urination. That urination may not be voluntary, either; cat owners with diabetic cats report that their cats have an increased incidence in accidents away from the litter box.

In the later stages of feline diabetes, as a cat’s body begins to self-cannibalize its own muscle and fat, a further condition develops, called ketoacidosis. Cats with ketoacidosis have symptoms that most clearly affect their respiratory system. A cat with ketoacidosis will have breath that smells of acetone — think of paint thinner or nail polish remover — along with heavy, labored breathing. Energy loss and general lethargy also become apparent as diabetes progresses.

How is feline diabetes diagnosed? Is it curable?

Veterinarians rely on two primary methods, blood tests and urinalysis, for accurately diagnosing diabetes mellitus in cats. The excess of sugar that is not being converted to energy, or ketones for more advanced cases, should be prominent in test results.

If a diabetes diagnosis is made, X-rays or ultrasounds may also be performed to look for associated damage or swelling in the pancreas and kidneys. This diagnostic battery will provide the veterinarian with a fuller picture of the cat’s condition and help determine the appropriate course of treatment.

Diabetes mellitus in cats is not curable. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, your veterinarian may suggest modifications to your cat’s diet, coupled with insulin supplements, which may be administered orally or by injection on a daily basis. Caught early enough, the need for insulin may wane, and a strict dietary program can help prevent a relapse. For many cats, though, the diagnosis comes after diabetes has advanced to type 1, which requires daily insulin and blood sugar monitoring.

Preventing diabetes in cats

Over the course of a cat’s life, a diet that is appropriately portioned for a cat’s age, size, and sex, along with regular exercise, can help prevent obesity. A cat who is in good physical condition has a lower risk for problems in the kidneys and pancreas, which are conducive to diabetes. Fortunately, feline diabetes is manageable, and cats can go on to live a relatively normal life.

Do you own a diabetic cat? How has your routine with your cat changed as a result? Share your experiences in the comments!

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