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Diabetes in Cats: Diagnosis, Treatment, and Management

Just like humans, cats can develop diabetes, and it’s often linked to weight and lifestyle.

Diabetes is a fairly common disease that can greatly impact a cat’s overall health. Fortunately, treatment often allows a kitty to live a long, happy life. 

Here, we’ll cover the causes of diabetes in cats, common symptoms, and how the disease is diagnosed and managed.

What Is Cat Diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus, the condition we’ll discuss in this article, is a disease that affects the body’s blood sugar regulation. This is different from diabetes insipidus, a much rarer condition that affects the body’s water balance.

Blood sugar (glucose) is a source of “fuel” or energy for the body’s cells. With diabetes mellitus, glucose becomes elevated in the blood, rather than being taken in by cells that need it. 

Cells then experience a shortage of energy, so the body breaks down muscle and stored fat to use for energy, resulting in weight loss. At the same time, excess glucose in the blood can cause organ damage or lead to life-threatening complications.

There are two types of diabetes mellitus: Type 1 and Type 2. 

Type 1 means the body has a shortage of insulin, a blood sugar regulating hormone produced by the pancreas. 

Type 2 diabetes means insulin resistance., where the body’s cells become less and less responsive to the hormone. Insulin can’t be effectively used by the body, even if enough insulin is produced. This type of diabetes most commonly develops in overweight or obese cats as they get older.

In felines, Type 2 diabetes mellitus is much more common than Type 1.

What Are the Signs of Diabetes in a Cat?

Diabetes in cats symptoms include:

  • Increased urination (amount or frequency).
  • Increased thirst.
  • Increased appetite.
  • Weight loss.
  • With advanced or severe disease, a kitty may be lethargic and otherwise acting ill. They may vomit, lose their appetite, develop weakness in the hindlimbs, or show other symptoms of being unwell.

Causes of Feline Diabetes

Some of the most common causes of cat diabetes include:

  • Obesity. Type 2 (insulin resistance) diabetes, which is common in cats, is often linked to excess body weight.
  • A sedentary lifestyle, which may also contribute to obesity.
  • Age. Diabetes is more common in cats who are 7 years of age or older.
  • Steroid medications. Certain types of steroid medications (glucocorticoids), which are used to treat conditions such as allergies, asthma, and IBD, may put a cat at a higher risk of developing diabetes. 
  • Gender. Diabetes is more common in male cats.
  • Pancreatitis. Severe or frequent inflammation of the pancreas may cause permanent damage and affect the organ’s ability to produce insulin.

If symptoms such as increased urination and thirst are noted, a vet visit should be scheduled as soon as possible. Early diagnosis is always best. If a cat is ill, they should see a veterinarian right away.

SEE ALSO: Kitten Growth & Development

Diagnosis of Diabetes in Cats

A cat's symptoms, their physical exam findings (especially if weight loss is noted since the last visit), and lab work can all be used to help confirm diabetes. 

Lab work includes a blood glucose (BG) check, which is a direct measurement of blood sugar. 

However, one single BG measurement doesn’t show the whole picture. When cats get nervous (which is common during a vet visit), their blood sugar can be temporarily but significantly elevated just due to stress — even if the cat is otherwise perfectly healthy and not diabetic. This is called “stress hyperglycemia.” So, other tests are used in addition to BG to help diagnose feline diabetes.

Another blood test, called fructosamine, can help provide clarity. This test gives information on blood sugar over the last couple of weeks. This helps confirm whether BG has been elevated over time, rather than just during the veterinary visit.

Glucosuria, or the presence of glucose in the urine, is another useful test. This abnormality only happens when blood glucose levels are so high that glucose “spills over” into the urine. 

Additional diagnostics may be recommended, too. This includes a more comprehensive bloodwork panel, and possibly additional tests such as radiographs. This would be recommended to check a kitty’s overall health, rule out other medical conditions that could be causing their symptoms, and look for complications of diabetes.

Treatment of Cat Diabetes

Treatment usually involves the below components and goals:

Daily insulin injections 

Unlike with human diabetes, oral medications have not been shown to effectively manage diabetes in cats. So, most cats need insulin injections 1-2 times per day.

While this might sound intimidating, many pet parents discover it’s much easier to give a cat an injection than to give them a pill.

With a little training and practice, a kitty and their human family can adapt to this new routine pretty quickly. 

At the beginning, some trial and error may be needed to establish the best insulin type and dose for each cat. A kitty’s insulin dose must be increased gradually, since a dose that’s too high can lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which can be fatal. Your vet will have you watch for symptoms of hypoglycemia, such weakness, wobbly walking, or loss of consciousness.

A diabetes-friendly diet

For cats, this often means a high quality, low-carbohydrate diet. Since canned cat food is usually lower in carbohydrates than dry food, your vet may recommend switching from kibble to cans. 

For overweight kitties, your vet may recommend a weight loss food initially. 

SEE ALSO: Can Cats Eat Sweets?

Close monitoring 

...especially in the beginning. This requires regular vet visits for a blood glucose (BG) curve, which measures BG levels at regular intervals throughout the day to determine how well BG is controlled and decide if the insulin dose needs to be adjusted.

Preventing complications 

Prevent complications, such as urinary tract infections, organ damage, and diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). DKA is a serious, potentially deadly complication of uncontrolled diabetes that happens because of changes to acid-base, fluid, and electrolyte regulation in the body.

Every pet is unique. So it’s important to check with your vet for the best specific treatments and guidelines for your individual pet.

Day-to-Day Management of Feline Diabetes at Home

Managing a cat’s diabetes might feel like a lot to keep up with at the beginning. But with a little practice, the routine gets familiar and easier to follow. 

Here are a few things veterinarians often recommend for daily management at home:

  • Establish a regular routine and stick to it as best you can. Blood sugar can fluctuate with just about anything in life — including stress or changes to eating habits. A predictable routine makes it easier for the body to stabilize blood sugar levels. 
  • Give insulin injections and any other medications as directed. 
  • Watch for any symptoms. Over time, you’ll get to know what’s normal for your diabetic kitty and what’s not. If there’s a change (like weight loss or increased urination), call your vet as soon as possible.
  • Blood glucose monitoring at home. With training and practice, many pet owners can learn to check their furry friend’s blood sugar levels at home. Your veterinarian will let you know how often this is recommended and which times of day are best.
  • Urine strips. These small testing strips detect when there is too much glucose in the urine. While not as accurate as blood testing, they may alert a pet parent if a problem is developing that requires a vet visit and bloodwork.
  • Establish an exercise routine. Moderate exercise can contribute to overall health and help regulate blood sugar. Setting aside time for daily play with your kitty’s favorite toys can help. 

What’s the Prognosis for a Cat With Diabetes?

Without treatment and management, diabetes and the resulting complications can become life-threatening.

But, assuming a cat’s diabetes is under control and they don’t have other serious health issues, they may live just as long as a non-diabetic feline. And, they can enjoy an excellent quality of life.

Also, with prompt treatment, some diabetic cats can go into remission, meaning they no longer need insulin injections. Sometimes these kitties need insulin again later in life, though. 

Costs of Diagnosis and Treatment In Cats With Diabetes

If it seems like you need to go in for a lot of vet visits when your kitty is first diagnosed, don’t worry — the beginning is usually the most time-consuming and financially demanding stage of treatment. Once the best insulin dose and overall treatment plan for your pet are established, maintenance becomes much simpler and requires less check-ins.

The exact cost of treatment may vary depending where in the country (or the world) you live. Asking your vet about the costs of all the different components of treatment and management can help you get an accurate idea of what to expect.

Costs in the beginning may include all the initial diagnostic tests, purchasing insulin and needles/syringes, any monitoring equipment (like a glucometer for checking BG at home), and a special diet. If a pet is experiencing complications of diabetes (such as a UTI or diabetic ketoacidosis), treatment of these conditions can increase costs, too.

As time goes on, the costs of managing diabetes become much lower, assuming diabetes has been successfully controlled. 

Long-term maintenance costs usually involve refills of insulin and syringes/needles (the frequency of refills depends on your furkid’s insulin dose), your pet’s diabetic food, and rechecks with your veterinarian. As a general rule of thumb, rechecks are less frequent the better controlled a kitty’s diabetes is.

Additional factors to consider include special arrangements, such as making sure your pet gets their injections (and can be monitored by someone knowledgeable on what symptoms to watch for) if you need to go out of town. 

Prevention of Diabetes

Since Type 2 diabetes is most common in cats, the most important component of prevention is a healthy lifestyle and maintaining a healthy weight.

Observing your cat for any symptoms, and seeking veterinary care early as needed, is also important. Early treatment is always best, and earlier treatment increases the chances of remission in diabetic cats.

And finally, regular veterinary checkups and bloodwork are important. Routine health monitoring can help to catch health problems early, which may help prevent complications and improve treatment outcomes.

A diagnosis of diabetes may be scary. However, with the right knowledge and proper management of the condition, diabetic kitties can be very happy and enjoy years of quality time with their favorite human companion! 

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