11 Sep, 2023

Cat diabetes: Symptoms and nutrition

Irina Turcan
Cat diabetes: Symptoms and nutrition

Cat diabetes is an increasingly common condition that afflicts our feline friends. The good news is that with early treatment and careful dietary management, diabetic cats can live long and happy lives. In this article, we discuss risk factors and signs of cat diabetes, as well as treatment options. We've also got nutritional advice for keeping your diabetic cat healthy – and perhaps even enabling them to enter remission. 

What is cat diabetes?

Like in humans, cat diabetes affects your kitty’s ability to control their blood sugar levels. When your pet tucks into a meal, their body creates glucose during the digestion process. Glucose is a type of sugar that provides both us and our feline friends with energy. It gets absorbed into your cat’s bloodstream, and the pancreas produces insulin in response to this increased blood sugar level. Insulin is a hormone that allows glucose to enter the body’s cells, for them to use as an energy source. As blood sugar decreases, the pancreas stops making insulin. This cycle starts again the next time your cat eats.

Unlike dogs, cats normally develop type 2 diabetes rather than type 1. With cat diabetes, either their pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, or their body doesn’t respond to insulin properly. This means that glucose cannot enter the body’s cells from the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels become abnormally high. In addition, the body is forced to use other substances, like fat and muscle protein, for energy.

Without treatment, cat diabetes can make your pet very ill. That’s why it’s important to be vigilant for the signs of cat diabetes and book an appointment with a vet if you spot any. Keeping your moggy in excellent health can also reduce the risk of them developing cat diabetes, as we’ll discuss below.

Fortunately, with quick treatment and loving care, it’s possible for most cats with diabetes to live long and happy lives. In particular, good nutrition and healthy weight management are effective ways to help manage the disease. However, there can be complications. As such, it’s crucial to follow the guidance from your vet if they diagnose your cat with diabetes. 

Is my cat at risk of diabetes?

There are a number of factors that may increase the risk of cat diabetes. Although they are not all within your control, there are steps you can take to address some of them.

For example, obesity is one of the most significant manageable risk factors for cat diabetes. Studies show that obese cats are four times as likely to develop the condition.(1) Obesity decreases insulin sensitivity, in addition to having many other negative effects on feline (and human!) health. Likewise, kitties who are inactive are also at a higher risk of cat diabetes.(2)

Consequently, keeping your pet a healthy weight is among the most important tactics for preventing them from developing cat diabetes. And we’ve got some advice on how to do just that later in the article!

Turning to risk factors outside of your control, male cats and cats over seven years old are more likely to develop diabetes. Research additionally suggests that some species, such as Burmese cats, may be more susceptible to the condition. Therefore, it’s particularly important to watch out for cat diabetes symptoms if your pet falls into any of these categories. 

Finally, some pets with other health conditions or who are on certain medications might also be at greater risk of cat diabetes.

Even if your fluffy friend doesn’t belong to one of these at-risk groups, it’s still worth being aware of the most common cat diabetes symptoms. That’s because spotting a disease early usually gives animals a better chance of having successful treatment for it. With that in mind, here’s what to look out for.

Signs of cat diabetes

Some of the most frequently seen cat diabetes symptoms include:

  •   Increased urination (because glucose draws more water into the urine)
  •   Increased thirst
  •   Increased appetite
  •   Weight loss (because the body is having to break down protein and fat for energy)
  •   Lethargy
  •   Weakness
  •   Vomiting
  •   Changes in their fur
  •   Being more prone to infections (e.g., urinary tract or skin infections)
  •   Sunken back legs due to nerve damage, forcing the cat to stand on their ankles

If you notice any of these signs of cat diabetes in your pet, book a vet appointment straight away. You know your kitty best, so if something doesn’t feel right, it’s sensible to get them checked out.

One tricky thing about cat diabetes is that the symptoms can be similar to those of many other diseases. As such, the vet will have to conduct tests in order to accurately diagnose your pet. For instance, they will probably need to test the level of glucose in your cat’s blood and urine. The vet might also want to monitor your moggy’s body weight and how much they drink in a specific time period. For some tests, they may require you to not feed your cat for several hours beforehand.

Veterinary treatment for cat diabetes

Nobody likes to hear that their beloved pet is unwell. Thankfully, however, there are effective treatments for cat diabetes. Your vet will advise you on what’s most appropriate for your kitty, but here’s an overview of the main options.

The most common treatment method is to give your cat insulin injections. These help to lower blood sugar levels by moving glucose from the bloodstream into the body’s cells. Most diabetic cats will require one or two injections a day, possibly for the rest of their lives. However, if your pet gets diagnosed early enough and responds well, they might become non-diabetic again. To give your kitty the best chance of coming off insulin, you’ll need to implement diet and lifestyle changes too. We’ll talk more about these below.

The idea of injecting your cat may sound intimidating, however most people get used to it with time. The injection normally goes into the scruff of their neck, and shouldn’t cause your kitty any pain. You’ll generally need to give your cat insulin injections 12 hours apart, and at the same time every day. It’s vital that you follow the vet’s instructions carefully, and be accurate with the amount of insulin you inject. Both too much and too little can be dangerous. 

In some rare cases, glucose-lowering oral medication might be a possible alternative to insulin injections. Again, you’ll have to combine this with dietary and lifestyle interventions to keep your cat healthy.

Cat diabetes: the importance of monitoring

Whichever type of treatment the vet recommends for your moggy, you’ll need to monitor them closely. Likewise, regular check-ups are vital with cat diabetes. This is to ensure they’re responding well, spot any complications, and make adjustments to their insulin dose as necessary.

For instance, if your pet receives too much insulin, they may become hypoglycaemic. This is when their blood sugar becomes abnormally low. It might also occur if your cat doesn’t eat, or if they vomit a lot. If untreated, hypoglycaemia can be extremely dangerous, so keep an eye out for the following symptoms:

  •   Lethargy
  •   Weakness
  •   Disorientation
  •   Lack of coordination
  •   Restlessness
  •   Twitches in their muscles
  •   Seizures
  •   Coma

When it comes to feline diabetes cat owners should always err on the side of caution. If you’re concerned about any health or behaviour changes, take your pet to the vet right away.

Cat diabetes and nutrition

Just like with human patients, nutrition is a key factor in treating and managing cat diabetes successfully. In some instances, weight loss and dietary changes could enable your pet to come off insulin and enter diabetic remission.

To begin with, if your cat is overweight or obese, getting them to a healthy weight should be a priority. This will help to reduce insulin resistance and improve their insulin control. However, you shouldn’t start restricting calories until your kitty has begun their treatment. This is because weight loss is a symptom of cat diabetes, and needs to be controlled first.

Likewise, you want to avoid rapid weight loss. Losing weight too quickly can increase the risk of your cat developing a type of liver disease called hepatic lipidosis. Experts advise a decrease of 0.5-1% body weight per week.(3)

Another tip is to feed your cat several small meals throughout the day, rather than less frequent but larger ones. This matches their natural feeding habits and how they would hunt in the wild. It may also prevent large spikes in their blood sugar levels after eating.

What’s the best cat food for diabetes?

The type of food that you feed your moggy is key in cases of cat diabetes. Numerous studies indicate that a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates is optimal for felines with the condition.(4) It can be an effective way to improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control, increasing the chances of diabetic remission. It may also help to boost fat loss and preserve lean body mass as obese cats lose weight.

Implementing this diet will probably involve reducing the amount of dry food that your kitty eats. That’s because such products are often rich in carbs.(5) Instead, the best cat food for diabetes is high-protein wet food that doesn’t contain much sugar. For peace of mind, you can buy wet food that’s specifically formulated to help moggies who have cat diabetes.

Supplements for cat diabetes

In addition to feeding your kitty a high-protein and low-carbohydrate diet, you could consider adding functional foods to their meals. These can be a natural and holistic way to boost their wellbeing. For example, studies indicate that certain species of medicinal mushrooms may have a beneficial effect on blood sugar.(6) This is partly thanks to their high levels of potent polysaccharides known as beta-glucans. 

Although we don’t have much data specifically regarding cat diabetes, studies on mice have yielded positive results. Fungi such as lion’s mane, cordyceps, and reishi might all help to lower blood glucose and improve insulin resistance.(7)

Medicinal mushroom powder is easy to add to your cat’s diet, because you’re able to blend it into their wet food. A good guideline amount is 50-100mg of powder per 1kg of your kitty’s body weight. You can divide this into two or three doses across the day. We recommend giving functional fungi to your pet in cycles, with a break of a few weeks after 6-8 weeks of use.

It’s important to note that medicinal mushrooms are not intended to replace professional treatment for cat diabetes. Always speak to your vet before adding them to your moggy’s diet. This will help ensure there are no unwanted interactions with any medication your pet is on.

Other ways to keep your cat in shape

Calorie restriction is one way to help your cat lose weight, but it’s not the only tactic. Ensuring your moggy gets enough exercise is important too. This is especially true because low activity levels are also a risk factor for cat diabetes. Some kitties need more encouragement than others to get active – particularly indoor cats – so here are some top tips:

  • Treat your cat to a variety of different toys, but don’t leave them all out at the same time. Swapping them every few days can help prevent your cat from getting bored of them.
  • Dedicate time to playing with your cat. They tend to be most active in the morning and evening, so these are good times to choose.
  • Recreate your cat’s natural hunting behaviour with toys they can chase. Battery-operated mice, toys on string, and similar playthings are all fabulous choices. Be sure to let them catch their prey in the end!
  • Provide scratching posts to keep your kitty active and their claws in top condition.
  • Vertical spaces like cat trees are fantastic for encouraging cats to jump and climb. It also offers them a spot to hide away when they want to!
  • Puzzle feeders can be a great way to combine food with exercise. Just remember that nutrition is important in cat diabetes, so be careful not to give your kitty too many treats!
  • If you have an indoor cat, you could try taking them outside on a lead and harness for a walk.

Keep your play sessions short but sweet, as cats are naturally active in quick bursts. Fifteen minutes is plenty of time. And, of course, never try to force your cat to play!