Diabetes in Cats

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Diabetes mellitus in cats is a relatively common endocrine (hormonal) condition, especially as cats age, but it is treatable. To help you better understand your cat’s condition, we will examine the symptoms, causes, and management of diabetes in cats, as well as what you can do to help prevent your cat from developing this serious condition.

In This Article

Signs & Symptoms of Diabetes in Cats

There are two distinct types of diabetes in cats: the extremely uncommon diabetes insipidus (DI) and the more common diabetes mellitis (DM). Although the symptoms of both are relatively similar, the underlying causes are very different. Since diabetes insipidus is so rare in cats, we will focus only on diabetes mellitus. The clinical signs of DM may include:

  • Increased thirst and urination

  • Weight loss despite a good (or even ravenous) appetite

  • Lethargy

  • Neurological symptoms (such as walking with the hocks of the hind legs on the floor)

The symptoms of diabetes in cats can be hard to recognize initially. Diabetes is an insidious disease, which means it progresses slowly, and cat owners may not see anything unusual at first. Litter boxes make it hard to keep track of your cat’s urination, but if you notice more urine than usual or if your cat starts peeing outside the box for no other apparent reason and losing weight despite a healthy appetite, your cat could be showing signs of diabetes.

These symptoms may also be signs of several other serious conditions, like hyperthyroidism, urinary tract infections, or a bladder stone blockage. Always contact your veterinarian any time you notice a change in your cat’s urination habits, weight, or behavior.

How Did My Cat Get Diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus occurs either when your cat’s pancreas doesn’t produce the amount of insulin your cat needs or when your cat doesn’t respond appropriately to the insulin that is being produced (which is known as insulin resistance. In either case, it means that your cat can’t effectively process glucose (blood sugar). Just as with people, high glucose levels produce adverse effects that can be life-threatening if not treated.

Common causes:

  • Destruction of pancreatic beta cells

  • Chronic inflammation of the pancreas

  • Obesity

You may be familiar with type I and type II diabetes. Cats more commonly suffer from type II diabetes, which occurs when the pancreas becomes less sensitive to insulin. Type I, conversely, occurs when the body stops producing enough insulin.

Diabetes insipidus, which – as mentioned above – is extremely rare in cats, is caused by congenital defects or results as a complication of another condition, like a brain tumor.

Diagnosing Diabetes in Cats

Veterinarians perform several diagnostic tests to diagnose diabetes in cats. Some of these tests will measure your cat’s glucose levels, while others will help rule out other diseases and identify any potentially related conditions. These tests may include a blood glucose test, complete blood count, urinalysis, biochemistry profile, urine culture, and abdominal radiographs. In general, a diagnosis of diabetes mellitus is made if your cat has: high blood sugar (hyperglycemia), sugar in its urine (glucosuria) weight loss despite a good appetite, and increased urination and thirst (polyuria and polydipsia, or PU/PD).

Glucose tests measure the amount of glucose in your cat’s blood. If the levels are above average, diabetes could be a suspect. However, stressed cats can temporarily raise their blood sugar levels, so expect to repeat testing as needed to confirm the diagnosis. In some cases, a fructosamine test can help differentiate between stress-induced glucose levels and diabetes in cats.

Diabetes can lead to additional diseases, including urinary tract infections. Your veterinarian will perform diagnostics as needed to determine if your cat has any concurrent conditions. He or she may also recommend a thyroid test to rule out hyperthyroidism, which is common in senior cats and presents with similar symptoms.

Treating Your Cat for Diabetes

Treating cats for diabetes involves several steps. Often, the first step is changing your cat’s diet. There are several prescription diets that can help to stabilize blood sugar. Feeding canned food rather than dry kibble may also be beneficial. However, do not change your cat’s diet without first consulting with your veterinarian.

In some mild cases, an oral medication like glipizide, can be used to lower blood sugar. However, most cats will require daily insulin injections to control their diabetes. There are several forms of insulin available, and your veterinarian will discuss the best option for your cat’s condition.

You will also need to treat any concurrent conditions, like urinary tract infections or hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease). These conditions may require medications like antibiotics, or in the case of serious conditions hepatic lipidosis, an esophageal tube to get food in your cat’s system as soon as possible.

Is there a cure for diabetes?

There is no cure for diabetes in cats. However, with proper management diabetic cats can live active, healthy lives.

Is diabetes contagious for humans or other pets?

Diabetes is not contagious. Your cat cannot transmit diabetes to you or to any other pets in the household. However, diabetic cats may have a decreased resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, so try to avoid introducing your cat to potentially contagious animals.

What is the cost of treating diabetes in cats?

The cost of treating diabetes varies depending on your cat’s condition. The initial hospital visit will require diagnostics to determine whether your cat has diabetes. These tests can cost several hundred dollars, and treatment for concurrent conditions may add more on to your bill.

Once your cat is diagnosed, you will most likely have to put her on a prescription diet.

Depending on what you currently feed your cat, these diets may cost more or less than her current cuisine. Bear in mind that you will also need to purchase insulin for your cat for the rest of her life, so budget accordingly for this ongoing expense.

Recovery and Management of Diabetes

Expect to be managing your cat’s diabetes for the rest of her life. After her initial recovery, you will need to return for regular, follow-up visits to make sure her blood glucose levels are within an acceptable range. You may even be able to test your cat at home once the initial treatment phase is over and if your cat is cooperative. These tests are essential to your cat’s health, as unmanaged diabetes can lead to a life-threatening condition called ketoacidosis.

Your veterinarian will show you how to administer insulin injections properly. Make sure you read the instructions on the medication, as it may need to be refrigerated in order to remain effective. Don’t hesitate to ask your veterinarian for advice about how to handle your cat if she resists her injections.

Diet and weight reduction can help your cat manage the disease when used in addition to medication. Ideally, your cat should have meals around the same time as her injections. This could mean adjusting your cat to a new feeding schedule, but with patience, your cat will adapt to these lifestyle changes.

Preventing Diabetes

Diabetes in cats cannot always be prevented, but keeping your cat at a healthy weight and feeding her a balanced diet may help reduce her risk of developing this disease. As your cat ages, monitor her weight, eating and drinking habits, and urination as best as you can. Diabetes isn’t always preventable, but an early diagnosis will help your cat get back to her usual self as quickly as possible.

Is there a vaccine for diabetes?

Diabetes is not an infectious disease, so there is no vaccine, but keeping your cat up to date on other vaccinations can help reduce the risk of other diseases that may complicate your ability to manage the diabetes.

Summary of Diabetes in Cats

Diabetes in cats is a relatively common condition, and is thankfully treatable, however it can become serious if not managed well. Knowing the symptoms and potential complications can help ensure your cat gets the medical attention needed to live a long and active life.

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Managing Obesity in Cats and Dogs

Weight management can be a big problem for pets. Approximately 60% of cats and 55% of dogs in the United States are either overweight or obese. Not only can this impact your pet’s quality of life, making it harder for them to enjoy walks and playtime, but it can also lead to medical issues such as diabetes, pancreatitis and arthritis. Read on to learn more about the risk factors for obesity in pets, and how you can help your pet lose weight safely, if needed.


Hyperthyroidism in Cats

Hyperthyroidism is an endocrine (hormonal) disorder that occurs most commonly in older cats. Cats with hyperthyroidism produce excessive amounts of thyroid hormones, which affects their metabolic rate and can cause potentially dangerous side effects.


Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) in Cats

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Bladder Stones in Cats

Bladder stones, scientifically known as cystoliths or cystic calculi, are a common condition for felines. These stones range in size from microscopic to several millimeters (or even larger!) in diameter, and can have mild to life-threatening side effects in cats. Bladder stones in cats are formed when minerals and other substances clump together, or aggregate. This can lead to mild or serious complications, including irritation of the bladder lining, urinary tract infection, and urethral obstruction. All cat owners, especially owners of male cats, need to understand the signs and risks associated with bladder stones to help reduce the risk of a life-threatening obstruction.

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