Feline Diabetes: Symptoms, Treatments, Prevention, and Diet Tips

Thomas Graves and WebMD team up to provide feline diabetes information and tips for treatment or prevention.

By Sandy Eckstein
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Martinez, DVM

An alarming number of cats are developing feline diabetes mellitus, which is the inability to produce insulin to balance blood sugar, or glucose, levels. Left untreated, it can lead to weight loss, loss of appetite, vomiting, dehydration, severe depression, problems with motor function, coma, and even death. To find out why so many cats are being diagnosed with diabetes, and what owners can do, WebMD talked to Thomas Graves, a former feline practitioner who is associate professor and section head of small animal medicine at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. Graves' research focus is on diabetes and geriatric medicine.

Q: How common is feline diabetes?

A: The true incidence isn't known, but it's estimated at .5% to 2% of the feline population. But it's also probably under diagnosed.

Q: What are the signs of diabetes in cats?

A: The main symptoms are increased thirst and increased urination. And while we do see it in cats with appropriate body weight, it's more common in obese cats. Some cats with diabetes have a ravenous appetite because their bodies cannot use the fuel supplied in their diet.

Q: What's the treatment for a cat with feline diabetes?

A: Diet is certainly a component. It's felt that a low-carbohydrate diet is probably best for cats with diabetes. Treatment is insulin therapy. There are some oral medications, but they have more side effects and are mainly used when insulin can't be used for some reason. There are blood and urine tests, physical examinations, and behavioral signals, which are used to establish insulin therapy. This is done in conjunction with your veterinarian. We don't recommend owners adjust insulin therapy on their own because it can be sort of complicated in cats. Most patients come in every three or four months. It's a good thing to make sure nothing else is going on.

Q: Will I have to test my cat's blood every day and give her shots?

A: Usually the blood tests are done during the regular visits with your veterinarian, although people can do them if they'd like. But the owners will have to give their cat shots. People are often afraid of that whole thing. But once you teach an owner how to do it properly, it's something people find quite easy. Many people even find it a bit empowering, that they can do something like that to help their pet.

Q: If caught early enough, can my cat be cured of diabetes?

A: It's usually not cured. Some cats, when you start treating their diabetes and you get their blood sugar under control and get them on a reasonable diet and get them in a better body condition, their diabetes actually goes into remission or partial remission. There are cats that stay that way for many months. Some might even stay that way for years. It can happen. But for the most part diabetes is a disease that we control and don't really cure.

Q: Can I prevent my cat from getting diabetes with diet and not letting her get too fat?

A: Nobody can tell you that you can prevent your cat from getting diabetes with diet because those studies haven't been done. There are some commonly held beliefs, based on a handful of clinical studies, that support the use of low-carbohydrate diets in helping diabetic cats control their blood sugar better. And we do know that obesity is a risk factor. But there also are some breeds of cats that get diabetes more than others do, so that suggests there may be a genetic component involved as well.

Q: Will it be better for my cat if I cook for her instead of buying her food?

A: It's hard to make a decent, balanced diet for a cat if you're cooking it. You have to make sure they get all the amino acids that they need, and their needs are different from dogs and people and other omnivores. You have to know what you're doing.

Q: Should I only feed her dry food or just wet food or both?

A: That's the raging argument right now. It's fairly controversial. If you think about what a cat's natural diet would be, they're carnivores. So the diet they would eat, if they were running around outside eating the animals that they prey upon, would be a very high-protein, very low-carbohydrate diet. So the argument is, that is what they have evolved to eat and that is healthier for them. So why do we have dry food for cats? Because it's more convenient for people. Some people just don't like dealing with canned food. And there are a gazillion cats that eat dry food and don't get diabetes. We see 20-year-old cats that eat dry food.

Q: Will diabetes shorten my cat's lifespan?

A: It sure can, because it can be associated with infections, with peripheral nerve disorders, and other problems. If it's poorly controlled you can get into some pretty severe emergency situations. But I can tell you that we see lots of diabetic cats that are older that are managed for many years and they can get into their late teens. It requires a lifelong, daily commitment, but it's something that can be done.

Q: What does it cost to care for a diabetic cat?

A: Most clients probably spend about $20-$30 a month on insulin, syringes, and other supplies. It's not terribly expensive once it's being managed.

Q: What are the newest treatments for feline diabetes?

A: There are newer insulins that are being evaluated. Some of the insulin analogs that are available for treating human diabetics are being looked at in diabetic cats and they have some promise. These provide more blood sugar control, often with fewer side effects. People are constantly trying to find new and better ways to care for diabetic cats.