Feline Diabetes: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Feline Diabetes

Diabetes is a common health condition found in middle-aged cats (and dogs). It is a disease of the pancreas (not to be confused with pancreatitis). 

Feline Pancreatitis Facts: 

  • Histological abnormalities consistent with pancreatitis were found in 22–57% of diabetic cats and in 60 and 67% of non-diabetic cats.
  • Pancreatitis is not considered to be a frequent cause of diabetes mellitus in cats. Pancreatitis does, however, seem to be a frequent co-morbidity in diabetic cats.

The pancreas has two groups of cells: one that produces enzymes to help your cat digest food, and the other produces the insulin hormone, which regulates how much glucose (sugar) is in your cat’s bloodstream and delivers it to the necessary tissues. 

Feline diabetes mellitus (FDM) occurs when the pancreas fails to regulate blood sugar. Feline diabetes is often a lifelong condition. Controlling the disease may require a fair bit of time, effort, and money. 

Fortunately, many diabetic cats can lead long and happy lives as long as the condition is properly managed. Don’t worry, we’ll guide you along the way. Continue reading to learn everything you need to know about feline diabetes, including:

  • What is feline diabetes mellitus?
  • How many types of diabetes are there?
  • What causes diabetes in cats?
  • What are the symptoms of diabetes in cats?
  • How is feline diabetes diagnosed?
  • How do I treat my cat’s diabetes?
  • Feline diabetes mellitus warnings

What is feline diabetes mellitus?

According to veterinary medicine, diabetes refers to two unrelated conditions: diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes) and diabetes insipidus (water diabetes). Since diabetes mellitus is more common in both cats and dogs, that’s what we’ll focus on today.

Blood sugar in the body is called glucose. It carries important nutrients that your cat needs to absorb into his cells. But that doesn’t happen without the help of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas as part of the body’s natural blood sugar regulation. 

Cats are one of the few species to develop a form of diabetes mellitus that is clinically and histologically similar to type 2 diabetes mellitus found in humans. Unlike dogs, who most commonly suffer from type 1 diabetes, cats are more likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes.

According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, “Between 0.2% and 1% of cats will be diagnosed with diabetes during their lifetime.”

How many types of diabetes are there?

You may think there are only 2 types of diabetes in cats, but in fact there are three types of feline diabetes mellitus:

Type I (most common in dogs): AKA insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, type I results from the destruction of the insulin-producing beta cells. Cats with type I diabetes need insulin injections to stabilize blood sugar levels.

Type II (most common in cats and older obese dogs): AKA non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, type II results from an insufficient production of insulin, a delayed response in secreting insulin, or your cat’s tissues are insulin resistant. 

Type III: the third type of diabetes results from insulin resistance caused by hormones, either from pregnancy or hormone-secreting tumours. 

What causes diabetes in cats?

While any breed of cat can get diabetes, orange cats and Burmese cats seem to have a higher risk of developing the disease, as do Russian Blues, Norwegian Forest cats, Abyssinians and Tonkinese cats. Diabetes can affect cats at any age, but tends to affect middle-aged to older cats. It also affects neutered, male cats more often than female cats.

Obesity is one of the leading causes of feline diabetes mellitus. In fact, your fat cat may be four times more likely to develop diabetes than a cat who maintains a healthy weight.

Even if your cat is just three pounds overweight, he may be considered obese, putting him at a higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes. We recommend playing with your cat to encourage physical activity throughout the day. 

Other causes of feline diabetes mellitus may include long-term use of steroid medications to treat illnesses (like feline asthma), chronic pancreatitis, hypothyroidism, and certain viral diseases and autoimmune disorders. 

What are the symptoms of diabetes in cats?

The two most common symptoms of diabetes in cats are weight loss (despite maintaining a healthy appetite) and increased thirst, which can also cause more frequent urination. 

When your cat has either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, the cells in his body can’t absorb glucose from the blood, so they become energy starved. His body then starts to break down fats and proteins to feed glucose-starved cells. This process causes your cat to lose weight even though he’s eating the same (if not more) food. 

When your cat’s blood has too much sugar in it, his kidneys have trouble filtering the glucose, causing it to “overflow” from the blood to the urine. The high concentration of glucose in the urine can draw excessive amounts of water into the urine. This causes increased urine volume and water loss, which can lead to dehydration … which can lead to increased thirst.

Other symptoms of feline diabetes may include frequent urination, increased appetite, excessive thirst, vomiting, dehydration, weakness, lethargy and depression. If your cat has any of these symptoms, consult your vet right away to rule out any potentially fatal conditions.

How is feline diabetes diagnosed?

Diagnosing feline diabetes is relatively straightforward. The primary indicators of diabetes in cats are:

  • Symptoms observed at home by you, the pet parent (listed above)
  • Elevated levels of glucose in the blood and urine (based on tests performed by your vet)

Even if he suspects your cat has diabetes, your vet will likely perform more tests to rule out other conditions, such as urinary tract infection, chronic kidney disease, pancreatitis or hyperthyroidism.

How do I treat my cat’s diabetes?

In addition to eating a balanced, healthy diet, most cats with diabetes will need daily insulin injections

Insulin Injections

When your cat is first diagnosed with diabetes (or if he is in an immediate crisis), he’ll be hospitalized for a few days to stabilize his blood sugar and regulate his insulin. Your vet will start to administer insulin injections subcutaneously (under the skin) every 12 hours or so. Once your cat is responding well to the insulin injections, he’ll be sent home and you’ll begin to administer the injections yourself. 

Be sure to keep in close contact with your vet during the initial phase of insulin therapy to avoid any complications and ensure he’s responding well to the treatment.. 

With early and aggressive treatment, many cats will enter a state of diabetic remission, which means they can maintain normal blood sugar levels without insulin injections.

Healthy Diet

Evidence supports the use of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets to regulate blood sugar in diabetic cats. Wet and dry prescription foods are available, though many cats respond best to an all-wet-food diet. 

For obese cats, slow weight loss closely monitored by your vet can help you regain control of your cat’s blood glucose levels. Talk to your vet about weight control diet options.

Feline Diabetes Mellitus Warnings

Diabetes is, for the most part, a controllable disease. That said, there are some serious issues to be aware of when using insulin therapy:

Insulin therapy lowers blood glucose, sometimes to dangerously low levels, causing your cat to become hypoglycemic. Signs of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) include:

  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Seizures
  • Lack of coordination
  • Coma

If left untreated, hypoglycemia can be fatal. If your cat displays any of these signs, offer him his regular food immediately. If he refuses to eat his food, try giving him some honey, corn syrup or other dextrose gels and take him to your vet immediately. 

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a form of decompensated diabetes mellitus. When glucose and ketoacids accumulate in the blood, making it more acidic, potentially life-threatening metabolic disturbances occur. 

Feline Diabetes Prognosis

Once feline diabetes is under control, your cat's prognosis is quite positive… as long as you keep up with the proper treatment, which may include insulin injections and a low-carb or raw diet, and consistently monitor his blood sugar levels. Be sure to exercise your cat with daily play so he can go on to live a happy life with as few diabetic symptoms as possible.