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Understanding Feline Diabetes

on April 21, 2016
Posted in Cats

Diabetes mellitus (Feline Diabetes) is a common disease in which a cat’s body either doesn’t produce or doesn’t properly use insulin. During digestion, the fats, carbohydrates, and proteins in the diet are broken down into smaller components that can be utilized by cells in the body. One component is glucose, the sugar that provides the energy needed for all cells.

Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas and is responsible for regulating the flow of glucose from the bloodstream into the cells of the body. If the cat’s body produces too little insulin or if the cat is resistant to the insulin it produces then the body starts breaking down fat and protein stores to use as alternative energy sources.

What are the signs of feline diabetes?

  • Increased hunger
  • Weight loss
  • Increased water consumption
  • Increased urination

Diabetes mellitus is generally divided into two different types in cats: insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (IDDM), and non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM). Approximately one-half  of diabetic cats have IDDM and thus require insulin injections as soon as the disease is diagnosed. The rest have NIDDM—some of these can be controlled with diet but others will eventually need insulin.

Which cats are most commonly affected?

  • Older cats
  • Male cats
  • Obese case
  • Purebred cats such as Burmese
  • Cats fed high carbohydrate diets ( kibble)

What causes diabetes in cats?

Many conditions have been linked to diabetes in cats and these include:

  • Obesity
  • Chronic pancreatitis
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Cushings Disease
  • Excess cortisone ( in the form of injectable or oral medications like prednisone)

How is diabetes diagnosed?

Diabetes mellitus is diagnosed based on the cat’s signs, physical examination findings, laboratory test results, and the persistent presence of abnormally high levels of sugar in the blood and urine. Once diabetes has been diagnosed, immediate treatment is necessary.

Left untreated, diabetes will shorten a cat’s lifespan. A dangerous, sometimes fatal condition called ketoacidosis may develop, indicated by loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, weakness, dehydration, and breathing abnormalities. Additionally, diabetes can lead to an unhealthy skin and coat, liver disease, and secondary bacterial infections. A diabetes—related disorder called diabetic neuropathy may cause cats to become progressively weaker, especially in the hind legs, impairing their ability to jump and causing them to walk with their hocks touching the ground.

Diabetes treatment is based on the severity of the disease. Cats with ketoacidosis require prompt intensive care, which usually includes fluid therapy and short-acting insulin injections. For cats that are not severely ill, your veterinarian may recommend a treatment plan that includes insulin injections or oral medications, along with dietary changes.

What is involved in treating a diabetic cat at home?

Each diabetic cat is an individual, and each responds differently to treatment. Some diabetic cats are easy to regulate; others are not. Some can be treated with oral medications, while others require insulin injections. Some cats’ diabetes is transient-reversing course with the passage of time-while others will require treatment for the remainder of their lives. Different cats respond best to different types of insulin. Regardless of this variability, all diabetic cats do best with consistent medication, consistent feeding, and a stable, stress-free lifestyle.


Most diabetic cats require insulin injections administered under their skin twice daily. The injections can be given at home, preferably at the same time each day. These injections are not painful—in fact, most cats are unaware that the injection is being given. Because each is different, the proper type of insulin, dose, and frequency of administration needs to be determined by your veterinarian. Ideally, this is based on an 18- to 24-hour blood glucose profile, obtained through a veterinarian-administered insulin injection and subsequent testing of blood sugar levels at regular intervals throughout the day. Insulin dosage may change with time and may need to be adjusted based on new blood glucose profiles, the results of intermittent blood tests and urine sugar measurements, and the cat’s response to therapy.

Oral Hypoglycemic Medications

Sometimes healthy diabetic cats can sometimes be successfully treated an orally administered hypoglycemic medication that lowers blood glucose. Adverse side effects, although uncommon, include vomiting, loss of appetite, and liver damage. Although oral medicationworks for some diabetic cats, most require insulin injections to successfully control their disease.


In addition to medication, an important step in treating diabetes is to alter your cat’s diet. Obesity is a major factor in insulin sensitivity, so if your cat is overweight, you will need to help him lose weight gradually. Most diabetic cats respond well to higher protein, carbohydrate-restricted diets. Your veterinarian can help you determine the number of calories your cat should eat to lose weight.  Many times cats that come down to normal weight can decrease insulin and some can eliminate it all together. Homemade diets, either raw or cooked often work well for these pets as long as they are balanced for the cat’s special needs. A consult with a veterinary nutritionist or a veterinarian who has a special interest in diet formulation would be wise before going that route.

What about natural medications?

Herbals such as Blood Sugar Gold by Pet Wellbeing can be used as an adjunct along with diet and insulin—not as a substitute for insulin. This herbal can be used to help regulate cats that are difficult to regulate and along with weight loss may reduce need for insulin. Your veterinarian will need to monitor your cat while he or she is taking this herbal and insulin.

What are the possible side effects of insulin and medication?

Low blood sugar or hypoglycaemia is a potentially dangerous complication, usually caused by a relative overdose of insulin.  Signs of hypoglycaemia include:

  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Appearing drunk or falling over
  • Seizures
  • Coma

If you think your cat has hypoglycaemia and he is still conscious, feed him something. If he is not able to eat rub some corn syrup on his gums or syringe it into his mouth if he can swallow.

Never force food, or fluids into the mouth of a seizuring or comatose cat. Contact your veterinarian immediately for further instructions if your cat exhibits signs of hypoglycemia.

How do I monitor my diabetic pet?

It is quite possible to measure your cat’s blood glucose at home and many owners do just that—it is often less expensive and more accurate than having the blood glucose monitored in the veterinary hospital where stress can affect the numbers.

At home, you’ll need to be constantly aware of your cat’s appetite, weight, water consumption, and urine output. It is important to feed a consistent amount and type of food at the same times each day, so that you can be aware of days that your cat either does not eat or is unusually hungry after the feeding. Any change in appetite or water consumption could mean that the diabetes is returning and means a trip to the veterinary hospital.

What is the prognosis for a diabetic cat?

There is no cure for diabetes mellitus. However, some diabetic cats may lose the need for insulin, months or years after diagnosis particularly if the diabetes resulted from obesity and the obesity is controlled.  Herbal supplements often make a big difference for these cats.  If obesity or some other disorder is not a factor, feline diabetes probably will not go away; however, it can be successfully managed. Once control is attained with proper treatment and home care, a diabetic cat can live many healthy years. Nonetheless, successfully managing a diabetic cat requires much dedication and communication between you and your veterinarian.

Read also: Keeping your Cat Free of Fleas

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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Blood Sugar Gold is an herbal supplement that can support your cat's blood sugar levels. A natural remedy and symptom relief.

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