You might think of diabetes as a human condition, but it can affect your pets, too. Up to 1% of cats have diabetes, with Type 2 diabetes making up 90% of those cases. Just like their human owners, cats with diabetes cannot effectively produce or respond to the hormone insulin. This causes elevated blood sugar. Diabetes in cats is a chronic condition that requires daily monitoring and treatment.
What causes diabetes in cats?
There are a few risk factors for your cat to develop diabetes. Overweight cats are four times more likely to develop diabetes than cats who are in the ideal weight range. It’s also more common in older cats. Additional risk factors include:
- Physical inactivity
- Male gender
- Use of steroids to treat illnesses such as feline asthma or skin allergies
Additionally, some breeds of cats in certain geographical areas are more prone to developing diabetes. They include:
- Burmese in Australia, New Zealand, and Europe
- Maine Coon, Russian Blue, and Siamese in the USA
- Norwegian Forest cats in Europe
Signs of diabetes in cats
There are a few signs you can watch for to identify if your cat may have diabetes. Symptoms of diabetes in cats include:
- Weight loss, even if the cat is eating normally, or even has an increased appetite
- Increased thirst and water consumption
- Increased urination, either inside the litter box or as “accidents” outside of the litter box
- Difficulty fully straightening their back legs or limping on the back legs
Diabetes doesn’t typically cause pain in cats, but it can make them feel unwell. If the nerves in their legs and feet are affected, it can cause mild pain and tingling.
How to test for diabetes in cats
A veterinarian will look for diabetes based on clinical signs such as weight loss, urinary accidents, and appetite changes. Testing for diabetes includes checking sugar levels in the blood and urine.
A test called fructosamine concentration may be run to give a more accurate overall picture than a single glucose reading. It reports an estimated average of a cat’s blood glucose concentration over the past two weeks.
Your vet may also run tests to check for or rule out other conditions such as a urinary tract infection, chronic kidney disease, pancreatitis, or hyperthyroidism, which could also be causing the cat’s symptoms.
How to treat diabetes in cats
“Diabetes in cats is treated in two main ways,” says Chyrle Bonk, DVM, a remote veterinary consultant for excitedcats.com, “first through giving insulin and secondly through diet.”
Cats with diabetes should eat a low carbohydrate diet. There are prescription foods available for this purpose. Kitten food and canned food also tend to be higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates. However, diet may not be enough to control diabetes.
In addition to what you feed your cat, how much and when you feed them is important too, especially if they are on insulin in addition. “A diabetic cat’s diet should remain essentially the same day in and day out,” Dr. Coates says. “Significant dietary changes will alter the cat’s need for insulin, and if the dose is not adjusted appropriately, the cat may suffer from dangerously high or low blood sugar levels.”
“Almost all cats should receive insulin when beginning treatment,” says Jennifer Coates, DVM, an advisory board member for Pet News Daily. “This greatly increases their chances of going into remission and not needing insulin in the future.”
Insulin is almost always given to cats through injection. Insulin injections are given under the skin, in approximately 12-hour intervals. While the ideal is to give the injections at the same time every day, there is room for a one to two hour deviation from the 12-hour mark.
Types of insulin preparations used in cats include:
- Vetsulin (lente insulin)
- ProZinc insulin (PZI)
- Glargine insulin
- NPH insulin
- Detemir insulin
“It’s not hard to give most cats insulin injections,” Dr. Coates says. “The needles that are used are tiny and result in very little discomfort.” Choosing the right size syringe is important because different types use different syringes. Talk with your vet about which choices are right for your cat.
Oral medications for feline diabetes have a low success rate and are typically only used if injection is not an option.
Blood sugar monitoring
If your cat is being treated with insulin, you might need to check blood sugar to make sure the dosage is correct. There are three different levels of monitoring, depending on factors such as the severity of the illness and likelihood of remission. Your vet can help you determine how often to test.
Is it expensive to treat a cat with diabetes?
Insulin can cost anywhere from $50-$250 per month depending on how much a cat gets per day.
If your cat is treated with the same insulin humans use, you can use SingleCare coupons to save. Just show your pharmacist the coupon when you head to the counter to pick up your pet’s Rx.
If left untreated, diabetes can cause malnutrition, organ failure, and possibly death. That said, with proper treatment, cats can do quite well, particularly younger cats and cats for whom the disease has not progressed significantly.
“The lifespan of a cat with diabetes will depend on how well the disease is managed,” Dr. Bonk says. “With proper management that keeps blood sugar levels in check, cats can live a normal life and even go into diabetic remission where they will no longer require insulin shots.”
If you notice signs of diabetes in your cat such as weight loss or increased thirst and urination, book an appointment with your vet. With proper care, your cat can feel much better.
Medically reviewed by Emma Ryan, DVM