Diabetes in Cats and Dogs


Signs, treatment, prevention
By Louis Livingston-Garcia

In 2015 I got a phone call at work from my mother in Wisconsin. My nearly 20-pound cat had to be put down. He was very sick for some time and my mother was told he wasn’t going to make it. The vet wasn’t sure what it was, but it sounded like diabetes. 

I called my now wife—a nurse in training at the time—for advice. Miyamoto is a crabby cat and hadn’t had his blood drawn. So, with a soon-to-be nurse’s info in my head, I told my mom to hold on putting the 6-year-old cat to sleep, left work, drove from the Twin Cities to northern Wisconsin, and went to the vet. A blood test revealed that he was indeed diabetic. 

He didn’t need to be put down. 

What followed was a short period of hydrating him via a large bag of electrolyte solution and a needle in his back (super weird as he could form bubbles of liquid on his body), insulin shots twice a day, special food for his new diet, two meals a day, and plenty of exercise. In less than a year, he was in remission and at a healthy weight. 

Early signs

My mom took care of my cat when I was working in Alaska, and then when I came home to work in Minnesota. This cat would fall asleep in its food dish, only to awake later and eat some more before taking another nap in his food bowl. 

He really enjoys food. 

A cat’s ballooning weight, however, can cause it to develop diabetes mellitus, or sugar diabetes. When a pet is diabetic, it can no longer regulate its blood sugar, and that’s when it needs insulin to live.

 Different types of diabetes

According to Dr. Brad Treder of Northern Valley Animal Clinic, a small percentage of dogs and cats are diagnosed with diabetes. Typically, it happens in dogs at age 5 and older and cats at age 8 or older. 

Dogs and cats even have different types of diabetes. 

“Cats tend to have type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, related to obesity,” Dr. Eve Richer, medical director for VCA Cascade Animal Medical Center, explained. 

“They need a low-carbohydrate food, canned, and insulin such as glargine, usually every 12 hours. There is an 80 percent chance of remission within one to two months if they receive this treatment.  

“Dogs have type 1 diabetes, a lack of insulin production, often subsequent to chronic pancreatitis,” she said. “They need a low-fat, complex-carbohydrate diet, and insulin, usually every 12 hours. They will need insulin for the rest of their lives.”

Chubby pets at risk

If you have a chubby cat or dog and are worried about diabetes—Banfield Pet Hospital recently reported that a staggering 41 percent of dogs and 46 percent of cats in Minnesota are overweight or obese—there are some things to look for. 

“Some of the earlier signs that owners can see in their pets are drinking more and urinating more,” said Dr. Kim Rowley, veterinary technician instructor at Rochester Community and Technical College. Sugar in the blood is a diuretic. Once it is processed, water follows the sugar out, so pets urinate and drink more. 

“Sometimes you will see weight loss at least initially. As things become more advanced they can go into a ketoacidosis crisis where they can become comatose and it can be a serious emergency situation.” 

Untreated or poorly managed diabetic dogs can even develop cataracts, and cats will walk on their heels as a form of neuropathy due to damaged nerves.

Prevention is key

The most important part of this story is prevention. Diabetes is a manageable disease, but proactive owners can guard against it.  

“Being overweight, especially in cats, does increase the risk of diabetes,” Richer said. “Other underlying disease such as infections and Cushings disease (a disease of too much cortisol in the body) makes the diabetes harder to control.”

Insulin shots are typically the best way to treat diabetes. Acupuncture may help overall health but not an underlying cause. 

“There are some reports about using oral medications in cats to control some diabetics that have been tried with various success, but insulin is still kind of the go-to therapy,” Rowley said.

And while Rowley said diabetes is not rare in pets, it isn’t something pet owners should be afraid of. Cats can go into remission with the right food and exercise, just like Miyamoto. 

Now 10, Miyamoto has some other health issues from time to time, but the diabetes is under control. We keep him on a strict diet via an electronic, programmable feeder. He eats prescribed food and exercises multiple times a day (that’s thankfully very easy because he attacks shoelaces as if his life depended on it). 

It’s manageable

Diabetes is not a death sentence for cats and dogs, just a challenge to take head on as you improve your pet’s health. And you would be amazed at how easy it becomes to inject insulin into your furry friend (especially if they’re busy eating). 

“Most animals continue to live the rest of their normal expected lifespan while their diabetes is being treated and successfully managed,” Treder said. 

“For the pet owner with a diabetic animal, your veterinarian will provide you with more specifics as to the treatment process, what to watch for and when to return for monitoring.” 

Louis Livingston-Garcia loves spending time with his wife and cat. He typically writes about craft beer with Miyamoto on his keyboard and lap.