Pets with diabetes are often misdiagnosed with other conditions and put on medication that is ineffective or even dangerous. When your pet has diabetes, it is important to care for them correctly in order to maintain their health. The following blog will discuss the basics of cat diabetes and share a few tips for maintaining an effective diet and exercise routine.
Diabetic Food For Cats
Cats aren’t so different from people when it comes to diabetes.
The disease affects insulin — a hormone that helps the body move sugar (glucose) from the bloodstream into the cells. Feline diabetes tends to more closely resemble type 2 diabetes in humans, in which the body makes insulin but becomes less sensitive to the hormone. Sugar builds up in the bloodstream, leading to symptoms like increased urination and thirst. If it’s left untreated, eventually diabetes can lead to life-threatening complications.
Although the exact cause of feline diabetes isn’t known, it’s more likely to affect overweight cats, because obesity makes the cat’s body less sensitive to the effects of insulin. Diabetes is also more common in older cats.
Diseases like chronic pancreatitis and hyperthyroidism, as well as medications such as corticosteroids, may also make cats more prone to develop diabetes.
Will I Need to Start a Special Diet for a Diabetic Cat?
Cats are, by nature, meat eaters. Because they’ve evolved from the hunt to the food bowl, it’s now their owners’ job to ensure that their diet includes a lot of protein.
Also, cats’ bodies aren’t as good as people’s at breaking down carbohydrates, says Richard W. Nelson, DVM, DACVIM, professor of internal medicine at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine.
This is especially true for diabetic cats. “The ideal diet for a diabetic cat is one that has increased protein and decreased carbohydrate content,” Nelson says.
Most canned cat foods are already high in protein and low in carbs. But many dry cat foods are made with starch, which makes them higher in carbohydrates. Your vet may suggest that you switch to a specially formulated cat food or an all canned-food diet.
As you watch the type of food you give your cat, you’ll also need to keep an eye on their weight.
Although the tendency in feline diabetes is for cats to be overweight, some cats may actually be underweight if their diabetes went undiagnosed for a long time. “At diagnosis, some cats need to put on some pounds, some need to lose some pounds, and some need to stay right where they are,” says Thomas Schermerhorn, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM (SAIM), associate professor of Small Animal Medicine at Kansas State University.
If your cat is overweight, your goal should be to help him lose weight gradually. A special diabetic diet will help your cat trim down, and it can actually make the diabetes easier to manage. Losing weight helps the cat’s body use insulin, which lowers blood sugar.
Every cat is unique, and the same diet won’t necessarily work for all cats. The diet for your diabetic cat depends on the cat’s health and weight, the severity of their diabetes and their personal taste. Your veterinarian can guide you in choosing the right nutritional plan.
When Should I Feed My Diabetic Cat?
You might have become used to leaving out the food bowl for your cat to graze whenever they please, but you may need to change that routine once your cat has been diagnosed with diabetes.
“It’s very important that you coordinate your meals with the insulin dosing,” says Kathryn Michel, DVM, associate professor of Nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “You need to have their meals timed with their insulin, so they’re absorbing those calories when the peak insulin is occurring so they don’t become hypoglycemic [have low blood sugar].”
Typically you’ll feed your cat twice a day, administering a dose of insulin right after those feedings. Frostig feeds his cat half a can of high-protein, low-carb cat food in the morning and half a can at night, following each portion with a shot of insulin.
Your regimen may be slightly different, but regardless of when you feed your cat, it’s important that they eat. Without food in their stomach, they may have to skip an insulin dose, which could be dangerous to their health.
If your cat hates the new high-protein food your vet has chosen or balks at eating twice a day instead of grazing, it’s better to go back to your old dietary routine for a while to make sure that your cat is eating.
If you’re careful about diet and insulin therapy, you may notice that you can start lowering your cat’s insulin dose.
In some cats, diabetes will even go into remission. But that doesn’t mean the cat is cured.
“I tell the owners that they should still think of their cat as having diabetes — it’s just controlled,” Schermerhorn says. Sometimes cats that have gone into remission will experience flare-ups and will still need to take insulin once in a while to control their diabetes. Owners need to be committed to caring for their diabetic cat for life, he says.
Frostig has kept his cat on a strict regimen of diet and insulin shots, and now it’s hard to tell that Bill is anything but a normal, healthy cat — or that he is 15 years old. “He’s still running around the house like he’s young,” Frostig says. “I have to remember sometimes that he has diabetes.”
Best Food for Cats with Diabetes
No single type of food is the right choice for all diabetic cats, but there are some guidelines that are usually followed.
- Low carbohydrates/high protein: Eating carbohydrate-rich meals leads to sudden spikes in blood sugar levels, which increases a cat’s demand for insulin. This is the exact opposite of what a diabetic cat needs. Low carbohydrate foods blunt this response. Cats should get most of their calories from animal-based sources of protein. Fat is needed to round out the diet but high levels can be problematic if a cat needs to lose weight. Look for foods with around 50 percent of their calories coming from protein and 40 percent coming from fat. Many diabetic cats do well on foods that are less than 10 percent carbohydrate, but some may need to go below 5 percent. Carbohydrate levels are not often listed on pet food labels, but they are relatively easy to calculate.
- Canned is best: A large amount of carbohydrate is a necessary component to kibble. Therefore, dry foods simply can’t be made with the low carbohydrate concentrations that most diabetic cats need. Some canned foods, on the other hand, contain no carbohydrates at all.
- Over-the-counter versus prescription: Many over-the-counter, canned foods have the low carbohydrate/high-protein profile that is appropriate for diabetic cats, so a prescription diet is usually not necessary. If your cat simply won’t eat canned food and you find it necessary to feed kibble, dry foods with lower than average carbohydrate levels that are designed specifically to help with diabetic control are available through veterinarians.
- Watch portion sizes: The quantity of food that a diabetic cat eats is just as important as the type of food you offer. Obese cats should eat an amount that encourages a healthy rate of weight loss. A goal of around 1 percent of body weight per week is appropriate for most cats until they have reached their ideal body condition. Weight loss can be achieved by feeding a reduced amount of a diabetes-friendly food. Over-the-counter weight loss diets tend to be too high in carbohydrates for diabetic cats.
- Palatability matters: Because diabetic cats should eat on a set schedule, it is important that their food tastes good and they look forward to mealtimes. Thankfully, many canned cat foods are both tasty and appropriate for diabetics, so finding one that your cat likes shouldn’t be too difficult.