Cats and Diabetes
Cats can get diabetes?
Unfortunately, yes. Diabetes Mellitus, or diabetes for short, can happen to any cat, at any point in its life, but it is most often diagnosed in older, obese adults. Sadly, a diagnosis of diabetes and the care that will be needed feels too overwhelming for many cat owners. If they decide they cannot keep the cat, they may end up believing that their only action is to euthanize the cat because many shelters are not prepared to care for this feline population. HART is very proud to have established a dedicated room at the shelter for diabetic cats and we know that we have saved many lives with our program.
How would I know if my cat is diabetic?
There are some classic symptoms: ravenous appetite, weight loss, increased water intake, and increased urination. Your veterinarian will diagnose diabetes based on a cat's symptoms, findings during a physical examination, and laboratory test results. Once diabetes has been diagnosed, immediate treatment is necessary.
Ok, so the vet says my cat is diabetic. Now what?
Caring for your diabetic cats is going to feel overwhelming at first. You have to learn a lot, and quickly. Most likely, the cat is going to need injections of insulin to lower its blood sugar levels. These shots are usually given twice a day. You will need to have your cat’s blood sugar tested to make sure that you are giving a safe dose of insulin. Adjustments may be needed. Your vet can teach you how to test the blood sugar and give insulin and the medical team at HART can help support you while you learn. You can easily test the blood sugars at home once you learn the technique. Interpreting blood sugar readings can be tricky so any change in insulin should be done only after discussing the blood sugar values with a veterinarian. Some insulins are expensive and you will probably experience sticker shock when you buy your first vial. Feline insulin doses are typically very small so as long as you store the vial properly it should last you quite some time. There are some resource sites at the bottom of this page that may be helpful to you as you begin to treat your cat.
Not treating the diabetes can prove fatal and cause a cat to suffer. A dangerous, sometimes fatal condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) 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. Left untreated, diabetes will shorten a cat's lifespan. 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. If you truly feel that you cannot manage your cat's diabetes, talk with your vet as soon as possible.
Another important first step is taking a close look at your cat's diet. Diabetic cats should be eating meals twice a day, right before you give the insulin injection. You will want to discuss your cat's diet with your veterinarian and watch the amount of carbohydrates in the food you feed. Carbohydrates quickly become sugar in the blood, and that's not good for a diabetic. HART has chosen a low-carb canned food only diet for our diabetics. If you are starting your cat on insulin and changing the diet at the same time, you will need to keep a very close eye on your cat's blood sugars so that the numbers do not go too low - too low can be more dangerous than too high.
It is possible, by making the right changes to your cat's diet, that their insulin needs will be short term. We have seen a number of our newly diabetic cats no longer need insulin within a few months of starting treatment and making the change to a low-carbohydrate canned food. This is why it is essential that blood sugar readings are made on an ongoing basis so your veterinarian can know when the insulin needs to be decreased or stopped.
So I gave the insulin, and now my cat is acting weird
Even if you always make sure your cat eats before you give insulin, low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can still happen. This occurs because a diabetic cat is either not eating enough or is getting too much insulin which lowers the blood sugar level too far. Signs of hypoglycemia include weakness, listlessness, lack of coordination, seizures, and coma. Left untreated, hypoglycemia can be fatal. If you ever feel that hypoglycemia is developing, even if you’re not 100% sure, the cat should immediately be offered its normal food. If the cat is unable to eat, rub some Karo syrup or honey onto the gums or, if the cat can swallow, slowly administer it by syringe into the mouth. Never force fingers, food, or fluids into the mouth of a seizing or comatose cat. It can cause them to inhale it into their lungs, not to mention that you can get bitten. If your cat is showing signs of hypoglycemia, get your cat to a veterinarian as soon as possible.
My diabetic cat isn’t eating great or is vomiting, what should I do?
It is always best to err on the side of NOT giving the insulin. In the short term, giving too much insulin is much more dangerous than giving too little due to the risk of hypoglycemia. Call a veterinarian immediately to discuss what to do with your kitty.
I could still use a little more help...
The medical team at HART is all-volunteer and we are not veterinarians. We are happy to provide support to owners who have a cat with diabetes, especially if the diagnosis is recent, however there may be circumstances where we must refer you back to your veterinarian for appropriate treatment. We would like to do all we can to help you keep your pet in your home.
Diabetic cats at HART
We have a number of wonderful diabetic cats at HART. If you feel prepared to adopt one of these deserving felines, we would love to work with you. We usually have both insulin-dependent and diet-controlled cats at the shelter. If the cat you adopt requires insulin, HART will provide the first vial at no cost. All diabetic cats also receive $100 of low-carb canned food as an adoption gift from one of our volunteers. Adopters will also receive a blood sugar testing meter and supplies.
Thank you to Dr Deirdre Frey VMD of Vet at Your Door for her assistance with this page