Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: June 25, 2023 by Crystal Uys
Written by Nicole Etolen
Living with a diabetic cat is not as challenging as it sounds. Yes, your cat will need some lifestyle changes, and yes, you’ll need to dedicate a bit more time to her care than you used to, but overall, there is no reason to panic. Read on to find out what to expect and how to make both your life and that of your cat easier and more comfortable.
What is diabetes in cats?
The overall mechanics of diabetes in cats is not much different than it is in humans. In very simple terms, diabetes happens when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the existing insulin doesn’t work properly to move sugar out of the blood and into the cells, where it’s needed to help produce energy.
In a balanced system, if a body takes in more sugar than the cells need, the kidneys simply filter out the excess through the urine. With diabetes, however, there’s just too much sugar to filter. The kidneys get overwhelmed and the sugar remains in the blood.
There’s one major difference between a diabetic human and a diabetic cat: cats can go into remission when the disease is caught early enough.
As an example, one of my cats was diagnosed with diabetes when she was about 13 years old. After just a few months of treatment, she went into complete remission. She lived to see her 21st birthday without ever needing another dose of insulin again.
What to expect when living with a diabetic cat
Once you’ve discussed treatment options with your vet and decided together which type of insulin to use, living with a diabetic cat is all about establishing a solid routine and sticking to it. Let’s look at a typical day with your cat, then we’ll discuss some tips to make caring for her easier.
While every case is different, a typical day may include:
- Checking your cat’s blood sugar levels by pricking her ear and collecting the blood on test strips for a blood glucose monitor.
- Preparing and administering regular insulin injections on a vet-recommended schedule.
- Monitoring your cat for signs of blood sugar crashes and reacting quickly to get the sugar levels back up.
Checking your cat’s blood sugar
Checking blood sugar levels is, by far, the hardest part of living with a diabetic cat. Between glucose monitor idiosyncrasies and a cat who races under the bed when he sees you coming with a towel and a test strip, expect to spend more time on this task than all of the others combined.
While your vet can (and should) give you very specific instructions on using lancets and monitors to test your cat’s blood sugar, there are a few things you can do to make the task a smidge less daunting.
- Set up all of the supplies before you get your cat. It’s virtually impossible to hold onto a fidgeting cat while opening up the lancet and setting up the monitor.
- Wash your hands and clean your cat’s ear with a cotton ball dipped in warm water
- Gently warm up the ear to stimulate blood flow. While you can just rub your cat’s ear between your fingers, the warm rice sock method works better. Just fill a sock with rice and heat it up for a few seconds in the microwave. You want it to be warm, not hot. Hold it against your cat’s ear for a few seconds.
- Hold a flashlight near the back of your cat’s ears to illuminate the veins and capillaries (either will work for obtaining blood). You may need to enlist help with this step, since it’s hard to hold a cat, a flashlight, and a lancet.
- Follow your vet’s directions for piercing your cat’s ear and collecting a blood sample.
- Very quickly insert the test strip into the monitor. DO NOT release your cat yet. Continue to stimulate the ear to keep the blood flowing.
- If everything goes according to plan, you’ll get a readout with your cat’s blood sugar. NOW you can wipe your cat’s ear and let him go.
It sounds easy, but things often go awry during the 6th step. Even the most expensive and technologically advanced glucose monitor can (and often will) come back with an error code on the first try. Usually, it’s a case of not having enough blood on the strip. If you’ve already released your cat, you’ll need to repeat steps 3-6 all over again.
Administering insulin injections
Your vet will give you detailed instructions on administering insulin, and you should follow them down to a T. Ask plenty of questions, take notes, and ask for a written copy of the instructions. While giving insulin injections is a piece of cake compared to testing blood sugar, there’s zero wiggle room for miscalculations when it comes time to measure out the medication. Even the tiniest iota too much can cause dangerous blood sugar crashes.
Handling sugar crashes in cats
While checking blood sugar and administering insulin are fairly straightforward and easily understood, handling sugar crashes confuses a lot of cat parents. After all, diabetes is caused by too much blood sugar, so how can too little be a problem?
Just like your own body, your cat’s body needs a near-perfect balance to function. That balance is called homeostasis. While the insulin injection helps achieve blood sugar balance, sometimes it does the job a little too well, leading to hypoglycemia, aka a “crash.”
This typically happens when you’ve accidentally given your cat too much insulin, or when your cat isn’t eating enough to maintain the delicate blood sugar balance. If it does happen, your goal is simple: get sugar into your cat asap. If he’s able to eat, give him a high-carb meal. If he’s not, vets recommend rubbing honey or corn syrup on his gums.
Other lifestyle changes for managing your cat’s diabetes
Along with the basic everyday tasks, you’ll also need to make some overall lifestyle changes for your cat. The first thing: getting him on the right diet (low-carb/high-protein). Once again, defer to your vet’s recommendations. You’ll likely need to eliminate dry food and switch entirely to a wet food diet. (A note from Ingrid: a species appropriate raw or grain-free wet diet is a necessity for obtaining the best possible glycemic control and will give your cat the best chance of remission.)
You’ll also need to pay closer attention to your cat and watch for signs of distress, especially as he adjusts to his new treatment regimen. You don’t need to stay glued to his side and stare at him every waking moment of the day, but you will need monitor for lethargy, loss of appetite, excessive thirst, and other signs that the treatment isn’t quite up to par.
The good news: once you get past the initial diagnosis and establish a routine, all of this becomes second nature. As mentioned above, some cats go into complete remission when the disease is caught in the earliest stages. However, even if that doesn’t happen for your cat, her prognosis is still quite excellent. Many diabetic kitties go on to live very long and happy lives.
Nicole Etolen is a writer and editor at CatVills, a site dedicated to helping both new and seasoned cat parents lead the very best lives possible with their kitty companions. She’s currently a pet parent to three cats and two dogs.
Featured Image Credit: Elpisterra, Shutterstock
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.