Many years ago, my babysitter phoned me on vacation. She was in tears, distraught because her cat had just been diagnosed with diabetes. I understood her distress but was also a little confused.
My bewilderment was because vets see diabetes as a good condition to treat rather than a death sentence. But many people just see a wall of information, a restrictive routine and an ever-worsening condition — and fear the worst.
Diabetes is a complex condition, so treatment can seem daunting. But take things a step at a time, and the problems shrink down to size. With this in mind, here is the upside, with 10 sweet steps to caring for a diabetic cat.
1. Diabetes Is a Treatable Condition
Diabetes is treatable.
Insulin is a hormone that helps cells soak up sugar from the bloodstream. Diabetes in cats is the result of the pancreas not producing enough insulin or the body’s cells failing to respond to insulin.
Daily insulin injections, along with watching what the cat eats, help get blood sugar levels back on track and allow the cat to act normal.
2. Chance of Remission
Treatment with a special diet and insulin injections can “rest” the pancreas, allowing it to repair and gear up to start producing insulin once again.
This is why vets put overweight or obese cats on a calorie-controlled diet. These cuddly cats have an unfortunately habit of storing fat inside insulin-producing cells, which smothers their ability to produce vital insulin. But slim down the cat, clean out the pancreatic cells and ta-dah!: Some cats become normal again.
3. Screening Tests
Recognizing complications at the beginning makes for smoother stabilization.
When you go on a long journey, you check your vehicle’s tire pressure, the oil level and that there’s sufficient gas in the tank. This helps reduce the risk of breakdown en route. The same goes for the newly diagnosed diabetic.
When finances allow, let your vet run a barrage of bloods tests to help identify issues that could make stabilizing the cat difficult. One example is screening for high levels of growth hormone in the cat’s bloodstream. The latter is a condition called “acromegaly,” which afflicts around 25 percent of cat diabetics and can make their care more difficult.
4. The Costs Involved
Make treatment less of a bitter pill to swallow by knowing the anticipated costs before you start.
Think of the cost in 2 phases:
- Initial stabilization:
- Ongoing costs:
- Insulin (once- or twice-daily injections)
- A Vetpen or insulin syringes
- A disposal box for used syringes
- Urine test strips
- Vet checkups and blood tests (every 3–12 months, depending on how stable the cat is)
Immediately after diagnosis, ask your vet for 2 estimates — for stabilization and for ongoing costs — so you understand the financial implications.
5. Insulin Injections
Insulin therapy is a highly successful treatment that doesn’t bother the cat.
Insulin is given using a special syringe with a hair-fine needle or an automatic dosing device called a Vetpen. Truly, there’s no need to worry about giving injections — the cat doesn’t feel a thing, especially with their head planted in the food bowl.
Most cats stabilize on twice-daily injections. But if your schedule doesn’t allow for this, be honest with your vet. Different types of insulin have different properties, and if a once-daily injection is what works for you, then the vet can factor this in with a different choice of insulin.
There’s lots of debate about which insulin works best in cats. Each vet has their favorite, and if your cat doesn’t do well, they will switch to a different option. Be prepared for some trial and error.
6. Food Choices
Feeding the right diet makes a big difference to a diabetic cat.
If you know 1 thing about human diabetics, I expect it’s that they shouldn’t eat sugary foods. The same goes for the cat equivalent of candy: highly processed foods.
The cat needs a food that promotes sustained energy release rather than a sugar spike. Ideally, feed a high-protein (meat-based) diet or high-fiber diet (the latter is a common recommendation among vets but is controversial because wild cats don’t eat high-fiber foods).
Certain manufactured foods (such as some semi-moist pouches) contain high levels of humectants, which cause spikes in blood sugar; it’s best to avoid them.
7. Blood Tests
From time to time, monitoring is necessary to check if the insulin dose is correct. This involves taking a pinprick of blood every hour or so to check how much sugar is in the blood.
This test can either be done at the vet clinic or at home. Indeed, home testing is preferable because the cat is usually less stressed.
Learn how to give your cat an insulin injection in this video:
8. Urine Tests
A couple of times a week, you should test the cat’s urine with a dipstick.
This is a safety check to ensure no ketones are present. Ketones are a natural toxin and an early warning of trouble ahead. If the cat has ketones in the urine, then contact the vet urgently.
9. Daily Routine
You’ll quickly adapt to the cat’s daily routine of injections, and it usually isn’t too much of a bother.
Having a diabetic cat does mean sticking to a regular routine of mealtimes and injections. They’ll need feeding at least twice a day, and once you’re happy they’re eating, then give an insulin injection. Most people find this fits seamlessly into their daily routine, although it can be complicated if you travel a lot or go on vacation.
10. The Bigger Picture
Draw everything together and know diabetes is a treatable condition, with many cats leading full and happy lives. Before starting treatment, ask the vet for an estimate of ongoing costs and be frank about factors you’ll struggle with (such as twice-daily injections).
Diabetes in cats is a huge subject, and I’ve only skimmed the surface here. However, if your cat is diagnosed with diabetes, don’t be downhearted. Diabetes is not a death sentence and, with a little planning, you’ll barely notice the commitment it takes to care for a diabetic cat.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Jan. 12, 2018.