What is Feline Diabetes?

Feline diabetes is a very complex disorder in which your cat is unable to regulate its blood glucose (or sugar) properly. Blood glucose is controlled by the hormone insulin. Insulin is produced by beta cells in an organ called the pancreas. Diabetes develops when these beta cells lose function and stop producing insulin or when the body becomes resistant to the effects of insulin.


What are the Signs and Symptoms?

The classic signs of diabetes include:

  • excessive thirst or drinking (polydipsia)
  • frequent urination (polyuria)
  • weight loss despite eating well
  • increase in appetite (early in disease process)
  • lethargy

As the disease progresses signs may include anorexia (loss of appetite), depression, poor skin and hair coat, secondary bacterial infections and vomiting. If your cat exhibits any of the above symptoms he should be taken to your vet right away for a thorough examination.


What are the Risk Factors?

Obesity is the most common risk factor for feline diabetes especially in cats over 15 pounds. Another common risk factor is age. Cats 6 years and older or more likely to develop the disease, although it can be seen in younger cats. Feline diabetes is also more common in neutered males. It is said that the disease affects 1 out of every 400 cats.


How is it diagnosed?

A diagnosis of Feline Diabetes is made based on clinical signs, physical exam, and lab tests. Lab tests include increased levels of glucose in both the blood and the urine. It is important to test both the blood and the urine for an increase in glucose because cats frequently experience stress-induced hyperglycemia (increased blood sugar), where the blood glucose can be increased just because of stress. However, stress-induced hyperglycemia does not usually result in elevated urine glucose.


How is it treated?

The object of diabetes treatment is to control the blood glucose so it stays in (or near) the normal range. If the glucose level is only slightly above normal, your vet may suggest dietary management and oral antihyperglycemic agents before resorting to insulin injections. But cats with persistent and pronounced hyperglycemia usually require insulin. About 70-80 percent of feline diabetes patients will require insulin injections.

The first step in treatment is to alter your cat's diet. Diets that are high in fiber are preferred because they are generally lower in sugar and slower to be digested. Stretching out feeding into several small meals instead of just one or two big ones will also help in regulating blood levels. Your vet will give you thorough instructions on how to feed your cat if he is receiving insulin injections.

If diet alone does not control the diabetes, your cat will need medication, either insulin or an oral antihyperglycemic pill. If you opt to try pills, research indicates that it can take up to four months before a cat begins to respond to them. Depending on your cat's overall health at diagnosis, you may not want to wait this long. Also, most cats don't seem to respond to the pills so injected insulin may be the best treatment option. Topics to be thoroughly discussed with your veterinarian include: insulin storage and handling, insulin administration, signs and treatment of hypoglycemia, diet, and monitoring at home

It is extremely important that you monitor your cat's glucose and insulin levels carefully. An overdose of insulin can create hypoglycemia, a potentially fatal condition. Symptoms include lethargy, weakness, followed by in-coordination, convulsions, and coma. This condition can be counteracted by giving the cat its normal food if it is able to eat, or a bit of Karo syrup rubbed on the gums, followed, of course, by a trip to the veterinarian.


What is the Prognosis?

Managed diabetic cats can live full and happy lives, but they do need careful tending because of the dangers of an insulin overdose. To be safe, keep your diabetic cat indoors. If your cat hasn't yet been stabilized on his insulin dose, stay alert for trouble during insulin peaks (about four to eight hours after each injection, depending on the type of insulin). Managing a diabetic cat requires good communication between you and your veterinarian. Your cat needs consistent administration of medication, consistent feeding, a stable, stress-free lifestyle and dedication and commitment by you.

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