Beyond 9 Lives: Treating Feline Diabetes

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This is a sponsored post by veterinarian Elizabeth Arguelles, owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. She writes weekly on Reston Now

Did you know that cats can develop diabetes? While diabetes mellitus, a disorder of the pancreas, can develop in cats at any age, male cats over the age of 8 are predisposed. The pancreas is composed of two very different types of cells that have very different functions. The first type is the manufacture of enzymes that ensure that food is properly digested. The second type is the production of insulin, one of the body’s most important hormones.

Insulin is critical to the healthy functioning of the body because it regulates blood sugar levels. After a cat eats, its digestive system breaks the food into various nutritional components. At this point, the insulin steps in to transport glucose to the body’s cells. A diabetic cat either cannot produce sufficient amounts of insulin or is not able to utilize it normally to collect glucose. As a result, the kitty’s blood sugar is not properly regulated causing a multitude of health concerns.

How common is diabetes in cats?

Diabetes mellitus is the second most common endocrine disease affecting cats. Approximately one in four hundred cats suffer from some form of the disease. Obesity is a predisposing factor, and diabetes is more commonly seen in middle-aged and older cats. The number of cases is increasing each year due in part to the increase in overweight cats.

What are the symptoms of diabetes?

There are four classical signs of diabetes mellitus to watch out for: ravenous eating, weight loss despite the higher food intake, increased water consumption and more frequent urination. If you notice these symptoms, please take your cat to the vet as soon as possible.

Cats that have undiagnosed diabetes can suffer from “diabetic episodes” which can be life threatening. If your cat ever has an unsteady or wobbled gait or collapses, get to an emergency vet or your regular vet immediately — don’t wait!

How is diabetes diagnosed?

Your vet will conduct a thorough examination of your cat to assess the symptoms.  Next, lab work will be needed to check the sugar in your cat’s blood and urine. If these levels come back as abnormal, an additional test called a serum fructosamine may be required for a complete diagnosis. Sometimes several glucose checks will be needed throughout the day or over a period of several days to track sugar spikes and drops.

How is diabetes treated?

Once the diagnosis is confirmed, your cat must receive treatment immediately. Left untreated, diabetes can shorten your cat’s lifespan significantly, as it can lead to potentially fatal conditions.

Depending on the severity of your cat’s diabetes, your veterinarian may recommend different treatment plans. For example, cats with more serious diabetes who have developed a condition called ketoacidosis require immediate care including fluid therapy and fast-acting insulin injections.

In most cats, however, the treatment is less urgent, though still long-term in nature. It will involve commitment and dedication on your part.

The first step is typically to remove any secondary or predisposing causes. For example, weight reduction in overweight cats may help resolve the symptoms. This can include a food that is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates. Such a diet decreases the amount of glucose absorbed from the intestinal tract, thereby lowering the insulin required by the body.

There are also a variety of prescription diets specially formulated for diabetic management that your veterinarian can recommend. Typically canned wet food is better for diabetic cats than dry food.

Weight reduction is a good start, but generally speaking, more specific treatment is needed to address diabetes. Usually, this means insulin injections given under the skin. Getting the dosage right may require several visits to the veterinary clinic and frequent glucose checks. Even when the right dose is found, it can change over time. To ensure your cat’s diabetes remains well managed, frequent glucose checks at home and at the veterinarian office is critical. Fortunately, glucose checks and insulin injections are quick and virtually painless for your cat.

It is very important to remember that your cat needs to be monitored while being treated. Part of the monitoring will be done by your veterinarian through regular blood samples. But the vast majority is done at home. This means daily records that include the time insulin is injected, the amount, the quantity and time of food consumption, and the volume and frequency of water intake.

What is the prognosis for cats suffering from diabetes?

Though there is no permanent cure for diabetes mellitus, it is a highly treatable and manageable disease. As was mentioned previously, weight loss can sometimes clear up diabetes without further treatment. In cats that have to be treated with insulin injections over the long term, the prognosis is good once control is attained with the right dosage and home care. With the right care, your diabetic cat can live well beyond nine lives.

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