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Diabetes in cats

  • Diabetes is one of the most common hormonal disorders found in cats
  • Some cases can be kept under control but underlying conditions are common and sadly not all cases respond well to treatment
  • Insulin injections will normally be needed alongside a carefully-managed diet
  • Older cats and those that are overweight are at most at risk of getting diabetes
  • Symptoms include increased urination, excessive thirst and weight loss

What is feline diabetes?

When cats suffer from diabetes, it means that their pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, or their body has an inadequate response to the hormone. Insulin is needed to absorb glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream after eating and transport it to cells around the body to enable them to thrive and grow. So a cat with diabetes will not be able to control the level of glucose in its blood. When blood sugar levels become dangerously high, it’s known as hyperglycaemia, and when glucose levels are too low, it’s known as hypoglycaemia.

What type of diabetes can cats suffer from?

Unlike dogs, cats affected by diabetes will normally suffer with the type two form of the disease, which is caused by abnormalities in the pancreas. It is very similar to the type two form of the disease in humans. The type one form of the condition, which is common in dogs but very rare in cats, is caused by an auto-immune response which destroys the cells which process insulin in the pancreas. Diabetes in cats can sometimes be a secondary disease or develop in response to certain drugs.

Is my cat at risk of diabetes?

Diabetes can affect cats of all ages and breeds, but it is more common among middle-aged and older cats, those that are overweight and inactive, and males. There is also some evidence that certain breeds, such as Burmese, have a genetic predisposition to the condition. Those that are on long term courses of certain medications can also be more at risk of developing the disease.

What are the main symptoms of feline diabetes?

  • Increased urination – caused by the glucose drawing water with it into the urine
  • Excessive thirst – caused by the body trying to keep up with the excess fluid loss
  • Increased hunger – because the body thinks it’s starving
  • Weight loss – because the sugars in the diet can’t be used by the body if there is not enough insulin, and so they are lost in the urine. This means the cat effectively isn’t getting enough calories and so the body starts to break down the fat reserves.

Other symptoms may include (but could also be a sign of another condition):

  • Enlargement of the liver
  • Poor coat
  • Weakness
  • Bladder infections
  • Vomiting
  • Collapse

How is diabetes in cats diagnosed?

Although symptoms may point to diabetes, tests will be needed to confirm a diagnosis and rule out other diseases with similar signs. Urine samples to test for glucose may be taken; if it is present in the urine, that’s a strong indication of diabetes as it isn’t being absorbed by the body. Blood tests may also show a high level of glucose. Further tests may be needed if your vet is unsure of a diagnosis, as high glucose levels can also be a result of stress. Your vet may need to admit your pet as an inpatient while they diagnose the problem and get their condition stable.

What medication will my cat need to control diabetes?

Most cats with diabetes will need insulin injections, normally twice a day, about 12 hours apart and after a meal. The injection is usually given in the scruff of the neck and should be painless for your cat. You may also need to test your cat’s blood glucose levels by taking a small swab of blood with a tiny pin prick.

Your vet will show you how to give insulin injections and carry out any urine or glucose tests. Many pet owners are understandably concerned about giving injections at first, but soon get the hang of it with practise. You may find you need another pair of hands to help hold your cat still for the injections, especially in the early stages.

It’s very important to follow your vet’s instructions precisely and stick to a regular daily routine to make sure your cat’s insulin levels are kept at safe levels. Always double check you have the right concentrations of insulin on any syringes and ensure you store it properly, in the fridge at all times.

Can a special diet help control my cat’s diabetes?

Alongside insulin, diet and keeping weight under control is an extremely important part of managing diabetes. Overweight cats will need to shift excess pounds; in some cases this can reduce the severity of diabetes and in rare cases resolve it altogether. Exercise is an important part of losing weight, too.

Your vet will advise on what diet best suits your cat and you will need to talk through your options with them. In general, diets that are low in carbohydrates are beneficial to diabetic cats. There are also some diets specifically formulated for cats with diabetes available from vets. If your cat roams, it is a good idea to tell neighbours about their illness so that they aren’t tempted to feed your pet or offer titbits.

Read more about keeping your cat in shape.

What are the signs that my cat’s insulin medication isn’t working?

Your pet will require regular check-ups to monitor their condition but always contact your vet for advice if you are worried or your cat seems unwell. If your pet’s thirst or appetite changes, or your cat is dizzy or groggy, contact your vet immediately as this could be a sign that insulin isn’t working.

What is the long term prognosis for cats with diabetes?

Provided cats with diabetes are given regular insulin injections, as directed by a vet, and stick to a recommended diet combined with exercise to keep weight down, they will often lead long and happy lives. But sadly, not every cat responds well to treatment and there are many complicating factors.

diabetes cat
— Page last updated 22/05/2023