Introduction To Feline Diabetes

When a cat ingests food, the digestive system breaks down that food and then converts part of it to glucose, which enters the bloodstream. The cells of which the body is composed absorb this glucose for energy. Insulin is the hormone that signals the cells to take up the glucose -- without it, the glucose stays in the blood.

Cute cat lying on the operating table with vet hand holding syringe. Introduction To Feline Diabetes

What Is Feline Diabetes?

In a normal system, the arrival of food stimulates the pancreas to dispense insulin. More food, more insulin. At its simplest, diabetes is a disorder in which insulin is not produced by the pancreas. There are forms of diabetes where insulin is produced and dispensed, but the cells don't "hear the message" -- though the mechanism is different, the outcome is similar.

Damage Caused By Feline Diabetes

Some of the damage diabetes does to the body is due to the glucose staying in the blood, but a lot is due to the fact that for lack of glucose, the cells malfunction. The body begins to die of starvation because cells cannot reproduce themselves when their lifespan is complete (a matter of days or weeks).

If a diabetic cat does not receive the necessary treatment, the cells of the muscles die off and cause nerve damage, causing the cat to have an irregular gait or the inability to stand, sit or lay down properly. Then the major organs are attacked, killing the cells required for normal organ function. The organs begin to fail, one by one, usually starting with the kidneys.

It can be a matter of days or into weeks before death mercifully occurs for untreated cats and can be considered slow torture.

Symptoms of Feline Diabetes

Diabetes is sometimes diagnosed as the result of a routine blood test, and the luckiest cats are treated before symptoms show up. Most are diagnosed because the owner noticed one or more of the primary signs:

  • PU/PD: PU=polyuria (frequent or excessive urination) PD=polydipsia (frequent or excessive drinking)
  • Weight loss despite eating well

The diabetic is hungry, eats more, but loses weight anyway. Some organs will attempt to correct the problem -- the kidneys, for instance, try to clear the excess glucose from the blood and go into high gear. They use a lot of water for this, so the diabetic feels thirsty all the time, and urinates huge amounts of dilute urine with sugar in it.

Because of this extra effort, the kidneys are usually among the first organs to show damage from diabetes, although one tends to notice eye and nerve damage first due to their sensitivity. If there is damage at the time of diagnosis, diabetes has been there for quite a while and has gotten severe.

Diabetes, although simple in concept, turns out to be extremely complex and variable in practice. There are experts who have studied this disease in-depth, but most veterinarians rely on guidelines based on average results achieved with large numbers of animals. It's rare for an individual animal to fit nicely into that picture, so both you and your vet have to have an understanding of diabetes and its treatment so that your pet can be treated effectively and live many more happy years.

Sadly, there are still a few who don't recommend that treatment be attempted.

What Will Treatment Of Feline Diabetes Do To Help My Cat?

The object of treatment is controlling the blood glucose so it stays in (or near) the normal range, as it would be if the pancreas were still doing its job. When food is given, insulin has to be available for cellular uptake. Unfortunately, injected insulin doesn't act quite like natural insulin, and it isn't practical to just shoot a little in every time the cat is going to be eating soon.

Some vets will try dietary control, insulin pills, or oral antihyperglycemics -- none of these seem to work well with cats, so most go straight to injected insulin. There are several insulins to choose from, and each cat responds differently to each insulin.

Feeding has a huge effect on blood glucose levels, too. It's hard to predict what will work, so the early weeks of treatment are trial-and-error. A few vets will regulate the cat in their office. Most simply choose insulin and dosage that they figure might work and send the cat home to be regulated by the owner.

Diabetes can be permanent or temporary, stable or variable, or even intermittent -- it's a "honeymoon" when diabetes disappears briefly.

Some Assistance For Diabetic Cat Owners

Diabetes is complex, and trying to understand it all in one big gulp won't work. Once you've made the decision to be a diabetic's caregiver, focus on one thing at a time -- follow your vet's advice and get the basics straight in your head. Doubt everyone: lots of people will give you good advice (like me), but no one thing works for every diabetic, and no one technique works for every owner.

As you learn more, keep going back and reviewing the things you already know then fitting the new stuff into the "big picture." The big picture is different for everybody, and you have to create your own.

Study everything you can get your hands on, both veterinary and human. Pick up brochures at vets and pharmacies and hospital metabolic centers, take out library books, cruise the Internet. Ask questions of everyone -- the vets, nurses and doctors, human diabetics, other owners of diabetic animals.

Ask the same questions of many people, because you will get widely disparate answers and have to choose for yourself what will work best for you and most importantly, for your cat.

Read more: A Feline Diabetes Story

Diabetes can affect humans as well as cats. You can find online resources and diabetes supplies at Diabetic Care Services, including test kits, for you and the humans in your family.

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