Feeding Tips for a Cat With Diabetes

Like people, cats can get diabetes. WebMD explains cat diabetes symptoms, causes, and treatments.

By Stephanie Watson
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Drew Weigner, DVM

When Randy Frostig took his cat, Bill, to the veterinarian six years ago, he was seriously worried. “He was lethargic and he wasn't eating, and his urine was sticking to his paws,” Frostig recalls. The diagnosis -- diabetes -- surprised Frostig. “I didn't even know that a cat could have diabetes. I didn't know what it meant,” he says. He was concerned about having to give his cat regular shots of insulin, and how the disease might affect his pet's life.

In reality, a diagnosis of feline diabetes is not a death sentence, and caring for a cat with the disease is far easier than Frostig had envisioned. “Giving him insulin is like brushing your teeth. It's no big deal,” he says. Thanks to regular doses of insulin and a special diet, the gray tabby started acting more like his old self. “He was running around, and he gained his appetite again.”

Why Do Cats Get Diabetes?

Cats aren't so different from people when it comes to diabetes. The disease affects insulin -- a hormone that helps the body move sugar (glucose) from the bloodstream into the cells. Feline diabetes tends to more closely resemble type 2 diabetes in humans, in which the body makes insulin but becomes less sensitive to the hormone. Sugar builds up in the bloodstream, leading to symptoms like increased urination and thirst. If it's left untreated, eventually diabetes can lead to life-threatening complications.

Although the exact cause of feline diabetes isn't known, it's more likely to affect overweight cats, because obesity makes the cat's body less sensitive to the effects of insulin. Diabetes is also more common in older cats. Diseases like chronic pancreatitis and hyperthyroidism, as well as medications such as corticosteroids, may also make cats more prone to develop diabetes.

Will I Need to Start a Special Diet for a Diabetic Cat?

Cats are, by nature, meat eaters. Because they've evolved from the hunt to the food bowl, it's now their owners' job to ensure that their diet includes a lot of protein. Also, cats' bodies aren't as good as people's at breaking down carbohydrates, says Richard W. Nelson, DVM, DACVIM, professor of internal medicine at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. This is especially true for diabetic cats. “The ideal diet for a diabetic cat is one that has increased protein and decreased carbohydrate content,” he says.

Most canned cat foods are already high in protein and low in carbs, but many dry cat foods are made with starch, which makes them higher in carbohydrates. Your vet may suggest that you switch to a specially formulated cat food, such as Purina DM, or Hill's M/D.

As you watch the type of food you give your cat, you'll also need to keep an eye on her weight. Although the tendency in feline diabetes is for cats to be overweight, some cats may actually be underweight if their diabetes went undiagnosed for a long time. “At diagnosis, some cats need to put on some pounds, some need to lose some pounds, and some need to stay right where they are,” says Thomas Schermerhorn, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM (SAIM), associate professor of Small Animal Medicine at Kansas State University.

If your cat is overweight, your goal should be to help him lose weight gradually. A special diabetic diet will help your cat trim down, and it can actually make the diabetes easier to manage. Losing weight helps the cat's body use insulin, which lowers blood sugar.

Every cat is unique, and the same diet won't necessarily work for all cats. The diet for your diabetic cat depends on the cat's health and weight, the severity of his diabetes, and his personal taste. Your veterinarian can guide you in choosing the right nutritional plan.