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Diabetes in cats

Ginger cat lied down advice

Weight management is important for a diabetic cat

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A change in your cat's behaviour could be one of the signs that your cat has diabetes.

By Dr. Helen Donald BA BVetMed MBA MSc MRCVS

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Cats can get diabetes, just like humans, but spotting the warning signs early is really very important.

How can I tell if my cat has diabetes?

Maybe you’ve noticed that you are having to change your cat’s litter tray or top up the water bowl more often. One of the most common early signs of diabetes is your cat drinking and peeing more. Some owners also notice that their cat has suddenly lost a lot of weight, particularly if their cat was quite overweight before, but is hungrier than ever. Another, less common sign is what’s called a plantigrade stance where your cat seems to be sinking back on their hind legs and is less keen to jump up or run.

Yet some signs can be very subtle, such as your cat being less playful and grooming less. Often owners think this is just old age, but you should always see a vet to get any change in behaviour checked out.

What happens to a cat with untreated diabetes?

If left untreated, diabetes can become a life-threatening emergency as toxic ketones build up. You should contact a vet immediately, if your cat’s breath smells of pears or it suddenly appears weak or collapses and starts to vomit.

How do you treat diabetes in a cat?

Most cats with diabetes will need insulin injections. You may worry that you won’t be able to manage this, but owners are often surprised to find that it is quite straightforward, and most cats aren’t too bothered by the injections. If you cannot inject your cat with insulin, oral hypoglycaemic drugs are sometimes offered, but they are not very effective in most cats and insulin injections are always recommended first. Some cats will get better just by losing weight and it is important to discuss with a vet the best diet to help your cat lose weight, if the vet thinks it will help.

Are cats with diabetes in pain?

Cats with hind-limb weakness sometimes seem to be in pain, but usually cats with diabetes don’t seem to show any signs of discomfort.

How long will a diabetic cat live?

Most cats are already quite old when diagnosed but, once their diabetes is under control, many go on to live a normal life span.

Should I euthanise my diabetic cat?

Some cats sadly are not easy to treat or have another underlying condition that means they don’t respond well to treatment. In this case a vet may recommend euthanasia as the kindest option.  

How expensive is it to treat a cat with diabetes?

Treating diabetes can be quite expensive, particularly as the disease can be quite unpredictable in a handful of cats, requiring more visits to the vet and more tests and, occasionally, a referral to a specialist.

Having said that, most of the cost is at the outset when a vet will probably recommend several tests to make sure that your cat has no underlying disease and to help recommend the best treatment option. Once your cat is stable, you should still expect to see a vet every three months and for your cat to have regular blood tests.  

How do cats get diabetes?

Most of the time there is no obvious reason why a cat develops diabetes, but sometimes it’s a result of another underlying condition, such as hyperthyroidism or cancer, or treatment with certain drugs like steroids. A vet will want to rule these out before starting treatment. Older male, neutered cats who are overweight and rather lazy also seem to be more likely to get diabetes, but we don’t know why. Burmese cats may also be predisposed to diabetes.

What is the best food for a diabetic cat?

Weight management is important and a vet will usually recommend a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet for your cat.

When should I see a vet?

You should always see a vet if you notice any change in your cat’s behaviour, particularly drinking more or losing weight, as there are lots of health conditions that can cause these symptoms, and tests will be needed to choose the best possible treatment for your cat.

What will happen when I see a vet?

A vet will start by asking you lots of questions about your cat’s eating, drinking and peeing, and general behaviour changes. Your cat will need a urine test to check for glucose and any signs of a bladder infection, a common side effect of diabetes in older cats, and a blood test to check for any other health issues. A fructosamine test is often included with the blood test, as this tells a vet if your cat has had unusually high glucose levels for some time before your visit. A vet may also recommend x-rays or an ultrasound examination, if they are worried about underlying problems such as cancer or pancreatitis. If your cat is very unwell, they may need to stay in the vet hospital for a couple of days for intravenous fluid therapy and treatment.

What should I ask a vet?

When you go to see a vet for this, make sure you ask them for a test and treatment plan for your cat with an estimate of costs. Ask for a demonstration of how to inject insulin, and some spare needles and sterile water, so that you can practise at home before starting treatment. Keep a diary recording your cat’s weight and how much food and insulin you give them, and at what times, and also how much water your cat drinks every day – and ask a vet to check all this.

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Ask for advice

Worried about your pet?

Speak to a qualified vet online, from the comfort of your home