Cats and Carbs: An Update on Feline Diabetes

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Treatment and prevention tips for this killer disease

By Louise Murray

If you’re a pet lover, chances are you know someone who’s had a diabetic cat. Diabetes is a real problem for cats in this country, but the good news is that we now have a much better understanding of this condition, and even better, we can cure it in many cases. Best of all, we are learning how to prevent it, which is the ideal strategy for a healthy, happy cat.

Cause: It’s now believed that many cases of feline diabetes are caused by excess carbohydrates in the cat’s diet. Cats are nature’s true carnivores, unlike dogs and humans, who are omnivores. Cats are also uniquely unable to manufacture an amino acid called taurine, found in animal tissue. Cats have many such nutritional differences setting them apart from humans and dogs.

Many cat foods, particularly dry foods, contain carbohydrates. Cats are not designed to properly metabolize carbohydrates, and thus cats on dry food tend to become obese. Additionally, the excess of carbs forces the pancreas, the organ that makes insulin, to overwork. Over time, the pancreas can become exhausted, and lose the ability to make enough insulin. This lack of insulin causes diabetes.

Not all cases of feline diabetes are caused by carbs in the diet. For example, in some cases, the pancreas becomes inflamed and suffers damage affecting the ability to produce sufficient insulin.

Treatment: Most diabetic cats have not permanently lost the ability to produce insulin. Their pancreas is simply worn out. In order to rest the pancreas and allow it to return to normal function, cats are treated with insulin injections.

Several studies have shown that the most effective type of insulin for treating, and hopefully curing, feline diabetes is glargine insulin (Lantus®). This insulin was developed for humans, but has been revolutionary for cats. Due to its formulation, it has a slow, steady action that is safer and less likely to cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Additionally, it has a longer effect once injected, so the cat’s blood sugar does not bounce back up before the next shot is given.

For the best chance of remission, Lantus® should be given twice a day, and the cat’s diabetes closely monitored. This can be done with blood sugar levels measured at home with a drop of blood taken from the ear, using the same kinds of monitors that human diabetics use. It can also be done by measuring the urine sugar at home, using dipsticks called Ketodiastix, which are purchased at a pharmacy. It is essential to tightly regulate diabetes; only by giving sufficient insulin to truly rest the pancreas will the cat regain the ability to manufacture her own insulin.

In veterinary medicine, as in human medicine, there are many types of specialists. For diabetic cats, it may be advisable to consult with a veterinary internal medicine specialist (acvim.org). The success of initial treatment will determine whether the cat’s diabetes is cured, or whether the cat will need lifelong insulin injections.

The second essential component of treatment is the cat’s diet. For the best chance of curing diabetes, cats are fed a canned-only diet (or balanced homemade diet formulated by a veterinary nutritionist). Any dry food, even a prescription diet labeled for diabetes, may reduce the chance of getting the cat off insulin injections. Ideally, most cats should eat a canned diet formulated for diabetes, or a canned kitten food. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian regarding the best diet for your own cat.

Prevention: We all know that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Clearly, we would prefer that our cats not become diabetic in the first place. The keys are to avoid obesity and excess carbohydrates.

For diabetes prevention as well as urinary tract and digestive health, I advise feeding cats canned food in meals, rather than allowing them to graze on dry food.

When attempting to make any change in a cat’s diet, such as from dry to canned food, patience and caution are essential. Never allow a cat to “hunger strike”; this can lead to serious liver disease.
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Louise Murray, DVM DACVIM, is vice-president of ASPCA Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital.

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