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Feeding Tips for a Cat With Diabetes

Like people, cats can get diabetes. WebMD explains cat diabetes symptoms, causes, and treatments.
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

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.

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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.

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