Just as humans can suffer from a range of different chronic conditions either from birth or that they fall victim to as they age, so cats are also prone to a range of conditions, including those that are related to nutrition. Some of these conditions require veterinary treatment, often in combination with a specially adapted diet. Diabetes is one of the conditions that can often be successfully managed by a special diet.
Nutrition for Cats with Diabetes
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Cat diabetes, or feline diabetes mellitus, is a serious chronic disease. Diagnosis is often a shock for cat owners, as although the condition is common, awareness can be low. So what exactly is cat diabetes, how does it develop, and how can you support your vet’s care with the right diet?
As cats have become domesticated, certain aspects of their lives and nutrition have clearly had to change. Even if your cat still retains some of its wild instincts and its outer appearance is little changed from the primitive wild cat type, their living conditions is utterly modern. Domestic cats no longer have to hunt for food and cats that live indoors tend to be far less active than their outdoor cousins. Most cats enjoy a wide variety of foodstuffs and treats, including delicacies like chicken in jelly or duck in a creamy gravy. However the recipes of convenitonal cat foods are seldom entirely appropriate for your cat’s needs. The domestic cat is a carnivore, which means that they are designed to thrive on high quality protein. Carbohydrate is a different matter entirely, as their systems are not adapted to digest them effectively. If you look at the ingredients of most commonly available cat foods, you will see that they contain fillers such as vegetable by-products, which can put pressure on your cat’s system and lead to chronic diseases including diabetes.
Diabetes in Cats
Cats can suffer from two different types of diabetes. Diabetes insibitus is a hormone-related condition affecting the water balance in the cat’s body. The cat’s urine is very dilute, which means that it needs to urinate often and may have toileting accidents when it does not make it to the litter tray in time. This rare form of diabetes requires veterinary treatment in the form of hormone injections.
The more common form of cat diabetes is diabetes mellitus. In healthy cats, the pancreas regulates the production of the hormone insulin, which is responsible for the cells absorption of sugar. This is a vital function because sugar is the body’s most important energy source. If there is an insulin imbalance due to diabetes, this can have wide-reaching consequences.
There are two types of diabetes mellitus. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease, where the cat‘s body destroys the cells responsible for insulin production. As a result, the pancreas is no longer able to form insulin. This type of cat diabetes can occur at any age.
The second type is often referred to as "age-related diabetes". This is where the body‘s cells have developed a very high tolerance for insulin (sometimes referred to as insulin resistance) and so no longer react to the body's insulin, which means that there are problems with metabolising sugar in the blood. The pancreas tries to compensate for this deficiency with increased insulin production. Once healthy glucose metabolism is derailed, the cat’s blood sugar level can vary wildly.
Older cats and overweight pets with a high body fat percentage are particularly susceptible to developing type 2. Typical symptoms include increased drinking and urinating as well as your cat taking less care of its hygiene. Your cat may also be losing weight, even though its appetite has increased. A dull coat, apathy, vomiting and stomach upsets are also common symptoms.
If you suspect that your cat may be suffering from diabetes, your vet’s surgery should be your first port of call. The vet will test your cat’s blood sugar levels. The blood sugar of a healthy cat should be between 90-130mg/dl or 4-8mmol/l. If their blood sugar is over 200mg/dl or 12mmol/l, it is likely to be suffering from diabetes. In order to get really meaningful results, the results are checked several times. This monitoring be carried out by the vet, but there are already ways that you can test your cat’s blood sugar yourself.
If the diagnosis of cat diabetes is confirmed, the next step is to agree on a suitable treatment regimen. Type 1 diabetes can only be treated with insulin. Regular testing of blood glucose levels ensures that the cat receives just the right amount of insulin.
Type 2 diabetes can be managed by changing activity and dietary habits, possibly in combination with insulin treatment from the vet. This means that an adapted, species-appropriate diet is essential.
The Right Nutrition for Cats with Diabetes
Conventional cat food is often blamed for cats developing diabetes. Species-appropriate food is essential to keep your cat healthy, and even more important if your cat is suffering from diabetes.
If allowed to hunt for its own food, a domestic cat will naturally prey on small prey animals such as mice or birds. Physiologically, these small animals are mainly meat and innards, that provide the cat with lots of healthy protein, its key source of energy. Carbohydrates are more difficult for cats to digest in large quantities, so they only really need a very small amount. Unfortunately, conventional cat foods do not match this high-protein, low-carbohydrate makeup. Cheap fillers and vegetable by-products are added, which increase the proportion of carbohydrate versus protein. A diet that is higher in carbohydrates puts pressure on your cat’s organs, including the pancreas, which has to adapt levels of digestive enzymes to reflect the inappropriate diet. In addition, dry cat food has a lower moisture content than wet cat food, which means that cats that eat dry food need to drink more to ensure that their urine is not over-concentrated, which can have a detrimental effect on the urinary system. Cats are often reluctant to drink, so it is difficult to monitor their moisture intake.
How do you provide your cat with a species-appropriate diet, whilst also paying attention to its needs to manage the diabetes? The first step should be to change your cat’s diet to a natural cat food that is high in protein and low in carbohydrates. A diet that contains fibre ensures that your cat has balanced digestion, but you should avoid feeding your cat any carbohydrates if it has diabetes. Many cat owners have discovered that they can simply feed their cat raw meat, to avoid the danger that carbohydrates present. However a raw diet needs to be thoroughly researched to ensure that you get the balance right and that your cat does not miss out on any of the essential nutrients that it needs.
Diet Food for Cats with Diabetes
Special diet food can also help to regulate your cat’s blood sugar and your vet can recommend different types of dietetic food to suit your cat. These are generally a good complement to veterinary treatment, but you should make sure that any diet food fits the species-appropriate profile with higher protein and lower carbohydrates, to avoid making your cat’s symptoms worse.
Lots of small meals spread across the day can help to balance your cat’s sugar levels. You don’t need to let your cat go hungry with smaller portions, but make sure that it does not over-eat.
A diagnosis of diabetes in your cat is not a death sentence. It is easy to treat, with the right veterinary support and the right diet, so that your cat can still enjoy a long, active life.