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Common Illness in Cats: Diabetes

By Colleen Williams
September 27, 2017 • 3 min. read
A cat at the vet

Last updated and reviewed for accuracy on October 16, 2021 by Cathy Barnette, DVM.

It may surprise you to know, but cats can have diabetes mellitus just like humans! In fact, diabetes was among the 10 most common conditions involved in Healthy Paws insurance claims in 2020.

Although diabetes is a serious condition, it can be successfully managed if you recognize the symptoms early.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a medical condition that is caused by insufficient circulating insulin levels. In some cases, a pet’s pancreas does not make enough insulin to meet the body’s needs. In other cases, the pet becomes “insulin resistant” and even normal circulating levels of insulin are inadequate to meet the pet’s needs. Regardless of the exact mechanism, diabetes occurs when a cat’s body cannot produce enough insulin to meet its needs.

Insulin is necessary in order for the body to move glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream into cells. Without insulin, a cat’s cells will literally begin to starve, despite being bathed in high levels of glucose. This leads to effects like lethargy, weight loss, decreased immune function, and neurologic changes (including coma).

There are several things that can cause a cat to be predisposed to developing diabetes:

  • Breed – Burmese cats have a genetic predisposition
  • Gender – males are twice as likely to develop diabetes as female cats
  • Age – cats over ten have a higher chance of contracting the disease
  • Obesity – diabetes is more common in cats that are obese
  • Other diseases – pancreatitis, hyperthyroidism, and Cushing’s disease all increase the risk of diabetes

If your cat is male, older, overweight, or genetically inclined towards acquiring diabetes, ask your vet during your regular checkup.

Symptoms of Diabetes

The signs of diabetes tend to come on gradually and they can easily be confused with other conditions. However, if your cat is displaying two or more of these signs, you should schedule an appointment with your vet:

  • Excessive thirst and urination
  • Muscle atrophy and weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Oily coat or dandruff
  • Lethargy

Appetite changes are common in diabetes, but may be unpredictable. In the early stages of diabetes, the inability to move glucose into the cells often triggers hunger in cats. These cats may have a ravenous appetite and eat continually, but lose weight despite their increased food intake. If your cat’s diabetes goes untreated, however, you may notice a decrease in their appetite as their condition deteriorates. Therefore, any significant change in appetite could suggest the possibility of diabetes (or another illness) and warrants a visit to the veterinarian.

Treatment of Diabetes

Your veterinarian will perform a number of diagnostic tests on your cat, aimed at assessing their overall health and looking for underlying factors that may be contributing to diabetes. Your cat’s treatment plan will then be tailored to fit your pet’s needs.

In general, the treatment of diabetes requires insulin injections. These injections must be given every 12 or 24 hours, depending on your veterinarian’s instructions. Your veterinarian will calculate an initial insulin dose for your cat, and your cat’s response to therapy will be monitored closely through blood testing. It may take several adjustments over a period of weeks (or even months) to arrive at the optimal insulin dose for your cat. Optimizing your cat’s insulin dosage is essential to managing diabetes. In some cases, cats with well-managed diabetes may even go into remission, not requiring additional insulin. However, many cats will require lifelong insulin injections to manage their diabetes.

In addition to insulin therapy, your cat may also need treatment for other concurrent illnesses, such as pancreatitis or hyperthyroidism. If your cat has any evidence of bacterial infections, these must also be treated in order to improve your cat’s response to insulin therapy.

Diabetes may also require some lifestyle changes for your cat. Your cat’s diet will likely be changed to a diet that is lower in carbohydrates; talk to your vet about the best feeding regimen for your cat. Obese cats can also benefit from daily exercise – but not too strenuous. You will also need to administer insulin shots and possibly monitor your cat’s daily glucose levels, which means that you will need reliable care for your cat when you go on vacation.

Fortunately, with your help, your cat can likely go on to lead a happy and fulfilling life.

The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical diagnosis, condition, or treatment options.

colleen williams
By Colleen Williams

Over the past decade, Colleen has written about health, wellness, beauty, and even pets for The New York Times, The Cut, Refinery29, xoVain, Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, and Seattle Met Magazine, as well as many beauty brands. She has a BFA in Art History from the University of New Mexico and an AAS in Fashion Design from Parsons School of Design in New York.

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