How to Spot and Treat Diabetes in Cats: A Guide for Cat Owners

How to Spot and Treat Diabetes in Cats A Guide for Cat Owners

If you are a cat owner or a potential cat owner, you may have heard of diabetes in cats. Diabetes is a condition that affects the ability of the body to produce or respond to insulin. This hormone regulates the level of sugar (glucose) in the blood. Glucose is the body’s primary energy source; without insulin, it cannot enter the necessary cells. This leads to high blood sugar levels and various health problems.

Diabetes is estimated to affect between 0.2% and 1% of cats worldwide, and it is more common in obese, older, inactive, and male cats. Some breeds, such as Burmese, may also have a higher risk of developing diabetes. Diabetes can have severe consequences for your cat’s health and well-being, so it is essential to know the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of this condition.

Types of diabetes in cats:

  1. Type I diabetes occurs when the pancreas, an organ that produces insulin, is destroyed by an immune-mediated process or a disease such as pancreatitis. This results in a lack of insulin production and a need for lifelong insulin injections. Type I diabetes is less common in cats than in dogs or humans.
  2. Type II diabetes occurs when the cells become insulin resistant or the pancreas produces insufficient insulin. This results in a reduced response to insulin and a need for external insulin supplementation. Type II diabetes is more common in cats than in other species, and it may be reversible in some cases if the underlying causes are addressed.

Risk Factors for Type II Diabetes in Cats:

  • Obesity: Excess body weight can impair insulin sensitivity and increase the demand for insulin production. Obese cats are up to four times more likely to develop diabetes than ideal-weight cats.
  • Age: As cats age, their metabolism slows, and their insulin sensitivity decreases. Older cats are more prone to developing diabetes than younger cats.
  • Physical inactivity: Lack of exercise can contribute to obesity and insulin resistance. Cats confined indoors or with limited access to outdoor activities are more likely to develop diabetes than active cats.
  • Gender: Male cats are more likely to develop diabetes than female cats, possibly due to hormonal influences or differences in body composition.
  • Medications: Some drugs, such as steroids (glucocorticoids), can interfere with insulin action or stimulate glucose production. Cats that are treated with steroids for other conditions, such as asthma, may have an increased risk of developing diabetes.
  • Genetics: Some breeds, such as Burmese, may have a genetic predisposition to developing diabetes. However, this may only be true for some populations of Burmese cats.

What are the symptoms of diabetes in cats?

A Persian Cat in the Hospital

The main symptoms of diabetes in cats are:

  • Increased thirst and urination: High blood sugar levels can overwhelm the kidneys’ ability to filter glucose, causing glucose to spill into the urine. This draws water from the blood into the urine, resulting in increased volume and frequency. To compensate for the fluid loss, cats with diabetes drink more water than usual.
  • Weight loss despite increased appetite: Because glucose cannot enter the cells that need it, cats with diabetes become starved of energy. They break down fats and proteins from their tissues to get the energy they need, resulting in weight loss. At the same time, they have an increased appetite because they are hungry, and their body signals them to eat more.
  • Lethargy and weakness: Cats with diabetes may have low energy levels and reduced activity due to a lack of glucose supply to their muscles and organs. They may also have muscle wasting and weakness due to protein breakdown.
  • Poor coat condition: Cats with diabetes may have dull, dry, or greasy fur due to poor nutrition and hydration. They may also have skin infections or wounds that heal slowly due to impaired immunity and blood circulation.
  • Vomiting:┬áCats with diabetes may vomit due to nausea caused by high blood sugar levels or ketoacidosis (a life-threatening complication of diabetes). They may also vomit due to other conditions that can occur along with diabetes, such as pancreatitis or kidney disease.

How is diabetes diagnosed in cats?

Suppose you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above in your cat. In that case, you should take them to your veterinarian as soon as possible for a check-up. Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination and ask you about your cat’s history, diet, lifestyle, and medications. They will also take blood and urine samples from your cat to measure their blood sugar levels and check for other signs of diabetes.

The diagnosis of diabetes is based on:

  • Persistent high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia): A cat’s average blood sugar level is between 80 and 120 mg/dL. A blood sugar level above 200 mg/dL is considered diagnostic of diabetes, especially if it is accompanied by high urine sugar levels (glucosuria).
  • High urine sugar levels (glucosuria): A cat’s average urine sugar is less than 100 mg/dL. A urine sugar level above 500 mg/dL is considered diagnostic of diabetes, especially if it is accompanied by high blood sugar levels (hyperglycemia).
  • High urine ketone levels (ketonuria): Ketones are by-products of fat breakdown that can accumulate in the blood and urine when the body cannot use glucose for energy. A high urine ketone level indicates that the cat is in a state of ketoacidosis, which is a medical emergency that requires immediate treatment.
  • Low blood insulin levels (hypoinsulinemia): Insulin is the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. A low blood insulin level indicates that the cat has Type I diabetes or severe Type II diabetes that requires insulin therapy.

How is diabetes treated in cats?

A beautiful Persian Cat Lying in the Hospital Bet

The treatment of diabetes in cats aims to:

  1. Lower blood sugar levels to a standard or near-normal range
  2. Prevent or treat complications of diabetes, such as ketoacidosis, dehydration, infection, or nerve damage
  3. Maintain or improve the cat’s quality of life and well-being

The main components of diabetes treatment in cats are:

  • Insulin therapy: Insulin injections are the most effective way to lower blood sugar levels in diabetic cats. Insulin injections are given under the skin, usually twice daily, at regular and consistent intervals. The type, dose, and frequency of insulin injections depend on the cat’s needs and treatment response. Your veterinarian will teach you how to give your cat insulin injections and monitor their blood sugar levels at home using a glucometer or urine test strips. You must also record your cat’s blood sugar levels, insulin doses, appetite, weight, and general condition.
  • Diet control: Diet plays a vital role in managing diabetes in cats. A low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet is recommended for cats with diabetes because it helps to reduce blood sugar spikes and insulin requirements. You should feed your cat a consistent amount of food regularly, preferably around the same time as their insulin injections. You should avoid giving your cat treats or snacks high in sugar or carbohydrates, such as milk, honey, or fruits. You should also provide your cat with fresh water at all times.
  • Exercise: Exercise can help to improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels in cats with diabetes. Exercise can also help to prevent obesity and maintain muscle mass and strength. It would help if you encouraged your cat to exercise regularly by providing them with toys, scratching posts, climbing structures, and interactive play sessions. You should avoid sudden or intense exercise that can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in cats with diabetes. You should also monitor your cat’s behaviour and energy level during and after exercise.
  • Other medications: Some cats with diabetes may need other medications to treat or prevent complications of diabetes, such as infections, kidney disease, or nerve damage. Your veterinarian will prescribe the appropriate medications for your cat based on their condition and needs.

What are the risks of feline diabetes?

Feline diabetes can pose several risks to your cat’s health if it is not treated correctly or promptly. Some of the possible complications of feline diabetes include:

  • Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA): This is a condition where the body produces excessive amounts of ketones due to a lack of glucose utilization. Ketones are acidic substances that can lower the pH of the blood and cause metabolic acidosis. DKA can cause dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, organ failure, coma, and death. Signs of DKA include vomiting, lethargy, weakness, rapid breathing, fruity breath odour, and collapse.
  • Hypoglycemia is when the blood sugar level drops too low due to excessive insulin administration or insufficient food intake. Hypoglycemia can cause seizures, coma, and death. Signs of hypoglycemia include hunger, restlessness, trembling, disorientation, weakness, and collapse.
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs): Cats with diabetes are more prone to developing UTIs due to high urine glucose levels promoting bacterial growth. UTIs can cause pain, inflammation, bleeding, and urinary tract blockage. Signs of UTIs include increased frequency and urgency of urination, straining to urinate, bloody or cloudy urine, licking the genital area, and vocalizing while urinating.
  • Hypertension: Cats with diabetes are more likely to develop high blood pressure due to kidney damage or hormonal imbalance. Hypertension can cause damage to the eyes (retinopathy), heart (cardiomyopathy), brain (stroke), and kidneys (nephropathy). Signs of hypertension include dilated pupils, blindness, bleeding in the eyes, heart murmur, irregular heartbeat, and weakness. Signs of hypertension may not be evident until the condition is severe, so regular blood pressure monitoring is recommended for cats with diabetes.
  • Neuropathy: Cats with diabetes can develop nerve damage due to prolonged high blood sugar levels. Neuropathy can affect the peripheral nerves that control the movement and sensation of the limbs, especially the hind legs. Signs of neuropathy include weakness, muscle wasting, difficulty walking or jumping, and a plantigrade stance (walking on the heels).
  • Skin infections: Cats with diabetes are more susceptible to skin infections due to impaired immune systems and poor wound healing. Skin infections can cause itching, redness, swelling, hair loss, and crusty lesions. Common causes of skin infections in cats with diabetes include bacteria, fungi, parasites, and allergies.

Feline diabetes is a severe condition that requires lifelong management and monitoring. However, with proper care and treatment, many cats with diabetes can live long and happy lives. If you suspect your cat has diabetes or any of the abovementioned complications, consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.


Diabetes in cats is a serious condition that affects the ability of the body to produce or use insulin. This hormone regulates blood sugar levels. Cats with diabetes may show signs such as increased thirst, urination, appetite, weight loss, and lethargy.

Diabetes can be managed with proper diet, medication, and monitoring. However, it can also lead to complications such as ketoacidosis, neuropathy, and infections. Therefore, it is essential to consult a veterinarian if you suspect your cat has diabetes and follow their recommendations for treatment and care.

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