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Does my cat have diabetes?

grey cat with yellow eyes

Danger signs for diabetes

Picking up signs of disease early can play a major role in the success of any treatment because the ketones that build up rapidly cause damage to internal organs, writes vet Dr Bradley Viner.

Watch out for any of the following signs in older cats and seek veterinary advice if you have any suspicions that your cat might be diabetic:

Thirst

There are several conditions that can cause an increase in thirst in elderly cat, so a change in your cat's water intake should never be ignored. Watch out for behavioural changes in your cat, such as drinking from unusual places and being seen drinking regularly for the first time having always previously drunk little. Diabetic cats also produce more urine.

Increased appetite

Because the cells are not getting the energy that they need, the appetite is stimulated. Despite eating more, as the condition progresses cats tend to lose weight. In the later stages of the disease, cats start to feel unwell and stop eating entirely.

Cataracts

Cloudy changes in the lenses of the eyes may be seen in diabetic cats. Cats with diabetes can develop cataracts. 

Weakness and lethargy

This can be common. An unusual but very characteristicfinding in cats is a 'flat-footed' gait. Diabetic cats also tend to lose weight, despite eating more.

Ketosis

This is a build-up of toxins in the bloodstream that can be detected in the form of an acetone-like smell on the breath that resembles nail polish remover.

In the early stages of the disease, the signs may be subtle and the cat relatively well, but as it progresses, the cat becomes more and more unwell. If left untreated, the cat will go into a coma and eventually die.

Treating diabetes in cats

Diabetes in cats is generally eminently treatable, providing the diagnosis is made early enough. Cats that are acutely sick will need intensive treatment in order to bring the disease under control. These cats will usually be hospitalized until their diabetes has been stabilized, because they need repeated blood tests to monitor their progress.

Once the condition has been diagnosed, milder cases can sometimes be dealt with as out-patients, with the veterinary staff helping the owner with treatment. This has the advantage of allowing the cat to remain in his normal surroundings, reducing stress levels and their effect upon his appetite, activity, and blood glucose levels. In other instances, it may be preferable to keep the cat hospitalized until his treatment regime has been stabilized.

The options for the long-term treatment of diabetes in cats are:

  • Very early cases of diabetes in obese cats can sometimes be controlled by a weight control programme alone, although the glucose levels do need to be regularly monitored. Diet is an important part of the long-term management of any diabetic cat,and special low-carbohydrate prescription foods are available to provide the optimum nutrition in such cases. The amount and type of food fed should be kept constant, and only gradually changed on veterinary advice.
  • In a small number of cats it is possible to stabilize their diabetes using oral tablets that stimulate insulin production. This treatment is most effective in mildly affected cats and obese cats where insulin resistance is present, combined with dietary control.
  • Most cats need regular injections of insulin once or twice a day to control the condition. It is often easier to give injections than to keep giving tablets because the needle used is very fine and the procedure almost painless. Once treatment is commenced, it is vital that the cat's daily routine is kept as stable as possible.
  • Monitoring treatment

Initially, a diabetic cat needs intensive monitoring to reduce the blood glucose down to acceptable levels. Once the optimum dose and injection frequency has been established, cats stillneed regular monitoring, although with time the frequency of testing can be slowly reduced.

Most owners monitor the progress of their cat's treatment by regularly testing his urine. Diabetes in cats can be montiored using a dipstick test strip or by pricking the foot pad and testing the blood with a glucometer.

Cats that are acutely sick will usually be hospitalized until their diabetes has been stabilized.