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Posted on 11-10-2015

So You Think Your Cat is Sweet?

(Diabetes mellitus in felines)

Don't be surprised, but cats (and dogs) can get diabetes!  Cats most commonly have Type 2 (in people this is called "adult onset" diabetes).  It is shown to be caused in many cases by lifestyle -- obesity, high carbohydrate diets and inactivity.

I began my own adventure with a diabetic cat almost 6 years ago.  My sassy eleven year old daughter, Becca, told me one evening that she thought Sammy, our orange tabby, had hyperthyroidism (she even pronounce it correctly!).  She noted that he was looking thin, and came up with that diagnosis on her own based on her observations over many hours spent hanging out with me at work.  I mentally noted that she needed to start hanging out with kids her own age and immediately brought our grouchy cat in for an exam and laboratory work.  I was thrilled to announce that her diagnosis was wrong (just because I live for the moments when I'm still smarter than my kids), but sad to find out our Sam had diabetes mellitus.

How would you know if your cat has diabetes?  The hallmark symptoms are increased water consumption and urination.  You may see your cat visiting the water bowl more often, or drinking out of the bottom of the shower or sink.  In the litter box, you'll see bigger clumps or more liquid at the bottom of the box.  Some cats urinate so much that they start using other locations -- your floor, the corner, your laundry -- the choices are limited only by your and their imagination.  Many times, cats that are diabetic are obviously losing weight, getting thin along the top of their back.  By the way, in my chaotic household, I totally missed the increased water consumption, and the kids (who erratically clean the litter boxes) didn't mention the bigger clumps until I asked.  And the weight loss was noted, as I said, by my tweenager.  I was a little bit embarassed and very humble.  I promise, I won't judge you!

IF, unlike me, you actually notice increased thirst, the time to act is NOW!  There are many causes of increased water consumption and urination, and all are serious.  DON'T DELAY!  If it is diabetes, the sooner we address it, the more likely we are to get the disease into remission.  The other causes of increased water consumption also benefit from early detection.

Your veterinarian will examine your feline friend, compare his or her weight to past weigh-ins, and perform a urinalysis and blood work.  She is looking for glucose in the urine, and may submit a urine culture.  (By the way, my technician-editor says I should not be so gender specific, but really, have any of you EVER seen a male doctor around this place??!).  She will check the blood for a high glucose level, as well as any evidence of other diseases that may be happening at the same time.  A frank discussion of the diet you are feeding likely to occur, so be sure that whomever accompanies your pet knows this information.

Once diagnosed, your veterinarian will discuss diet in greater detail.  Cats are obligate carnivores, and many of the foods that we feed them are way too high in carbohydrate for them.  This is the biggest contributor to obesity and diabetes in cats.  A low carbohydrate diet (<7%) is imperative for getting your pet's diabetes under control.  It is very hard to find a dry food that will have a low enough carbohydrate content, so expect the recommendation to be that you change to an all canned food diet.  Even some of those are too high in carbs.  A GREAT resource is Binky's page http://binkyspage.tripod.com/.  This dedicated cat lover keeps the page updated with the nutritional information of almost every cat food.  Transition as quickly as your pet can manage.  Your veterinarian will advise how much food to feed, as getting these (usually overweight) cats to an ideal body weight is key to successful management.  I myself, before diabetes, was feeding mostly kibble food, because it was easier and less expensive.  Again, no judgement here!

A discussion about insulin is also going to occur.  There are several types that are used in cats.  The sooner appropriate insulin therapy has been initiated, the more likely your pet will reach remission (a temporary or permanent resolution of the high blood sugar).  Some cats will only need insulin a few short weeks to get to a point where they don't need it at all any more!  Your veterinarian will show you how to administer the insulin and how to watch for symptoms of low blood sugar.  She will let you practice as much as you need until you are sure you can do it.  Bring every family member you can for this demo.  You might be surprised about who is the most proficient!  My youngest son was 8 years old when our cat was diagnosed, and he was often the one who was able to find the cat and give these injections.  That cat just never seemed to suspect him.  Still doesn't, by the way.

After beginning therapy, your veterinarian will advise you of a recheck and monitoring plan.  DO NOT SKIP OR SKIMP!  It is crucial that we recheck these sweet cats on a schedule so we know exactly how they're doing and can make adjustments in the amount and sometimes the type of insulin.  This is not inexpensive, but the rechecks allow us to personalize the care with the hopes of quick success.  The more quickly remission is reached (it at all), the lower the cost.  None of us like to talk about money when it comes to our best furry friends, but we know that finances can be problematic.  Remission, if achieved, is when we get the diabetes under such control that insulin is no longer needed.  Always the goal!

Going forward, you will want to have your cat checked every 4 to 6 months to make sure they are maintaining a stead blood glucose level and are remaining at an ideal body weight.

Want to avoid diabetes altogether?  Your best chance is to keep your cat from becoming overweight.  There have been numerous studies that demonstrate that canned, low carbohydrate diets are best for this, too.  Binky's page will steer you in the right direction.

I was doing so many things wrong with my own cat, and I sometimes think he was cursed with diabetes so I could learn what it is to deal with this very serious disease up close and personal.  It has had its challenging moments, but Sammy is well over 16 years old now, and has been a diagnosed, insulin dependent diabetic for almost 6 of those years.  I'd like to say he's grateful, but, frankly, he's a big grouch.

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