Cats and Diabetes

Is there any good news about diabetes in our cats? Yes, actually there is! Many diabetic cats can achieve remission with proper treatment. It takes a committed kitty parent working with a knowledgeable veterinarian, time and patience. Read Biddie’s story and find encouragement. 

According to my daughter, Dr. Karen Becker, diabetes in cats is almost always preventable through diet and exercise, not unlike Type 2 diabetes in humans. She says that most cases of diabetes in cats is a result of being overweight or just plain obese from an abundance of high carb food, a too sedentary lifestyle and over vaccinations (which can cause autoimmune disease in the pancreas and negatively affect the insulin-secreting cells). 

The obesity issue is most often directly related to diet, which means the diabetic, overweight cat has been eating too many carbs. Also not unlike humans. 

Getting a cat to change her palate can be a challenging piece of work, however, it can be done in the most cases, with enough time and patience. We rescued two adult kitties three months ago. They are 10 and 7 years of age. Our 10 year old was obese when she moved in with us and our 7 year old was overweight. My daughter, the vet said to me, “I don’t want our kitties to become diabetic, and I don’t want them to have joint and other health issues from obesity. We have to get them on a healthier diet and help them lose weight.” This was our primary goal with them and in three months, we have transitioned them from kibble to canned to gently cooked…our next step will be raw. It can be done. My daughter spent 3 years working with Biddie’s mom to get Biddie to a healthy diet…they did it and even got Biddie’s diabetes under control and in remission. 

If feline diabetes is diagnosed early (often times by just paying attention to climbing fasting glucose levels on annual bloodwork) and you, the cat parent are committed to bringing the disease under control, it’s possible for a cat to go into remission. If the disease has not been early diagnosed, your kitty may require lifelong insulin therapy. Even so, a healthy diet and lifestyle change will benefit your kitty’s quality of life immensely, reduce the amount of insulin needed to manage the disease and reduce the likelihood of secondary diseases that can occur alongside type 2 diabetes. 

Cats are obligate carnivores which means their primary nutritional need is protein (and a high quality protein, at that). If your kitty is diagnosed with diabetes, she’s probably been on a kibble diet. The primary ingredient in kibble is a starch of some sort. You will never see this on the ingredient label, but if you add up the protein, fat, moisture and ash that is on the kibble label, then subtract that from 100, the result is the amount of carb that your kitty is eating with that particular food. 

So the first move would be to limit the amount of dry food you feed to 50-75% of your cat’s daily intake, split into two small portions, to stimulate their desire to try new food (hunger does this to all mammals J). 

In between their limited-quantity kibble, offer as much carb-free, canned food as they’ll eat. Canned food comes in two types: flaked/slices n’ gravy, and paté (meatloaf-like). Cats tend to prefer one over the other; our kitties are strict paté girls, we discovered. I would also suggest switching brands of quality canned food until you find one that your cat accepts. We bought one can of both types of cat food, in all the better brands we could find and just kept of list of what they were interested in and what they walked away from. Our cats had clear brand preferences, so when we discovered the brands they would nibble, we just returned all the other brands . 

When you find a canned food your cat accepts (for us, any interest in any canned food didn’t start until day 3 of their calorie restriction), offer as much as they will eat, and as their appetite for canned food increases, decrease the kibble. By the end of the second week both of our kitties were devouring their tablespoon of kibble twice a day, but eating at least one can of food, each, per day. Shortly thereafter we discontinued their kibble altogether (much to their dismay, but they did begrudgingly eat their new canned food). 

The next step, I learned, is to transition to a higher quality gently cooked balanced food that mimics the consistency of their current canned food. We moved to SMALLS brand gently cooked chicken. The time involved in these transitions can run the gamut from days to months…possibly years, with super-addicted, older cats. Kittens transition the easiest. Your cat ultimately makes the decision as to how quickly the transition occurs, based on how much new food they’re consuming. 

My husband suggested we just leave the new food down until they eat it, and I also learned this is a no-no. You never play “hardball” and starve a cat…the most we can do is to intentionally create hunger (which is usually enough for cats to decide to try new food choices, one tiny bite at a time). But remember, without creating true hunger (in between small kibble snacks) the desire to try any new food is zero, so don’t bother offering new food with an abundance of the old diet available; you are wasting money (and canned food is super expensive!). 

On top of the kind of food you give your kitty is the question of how much. Our two kitties have been telling us that we are far, far too restrictive on the amount of food they are getting. Portion control is as important as quality control. Obesity usually means there’s been too much food (regardless the kind) and too little exercise in their lives. We have been able to get our cats moving with a variety of interactive toys. I figured out we must keep the toys in a cupboard and bring them out for short periods of time, several times a day. If the toys are left out, they lose interest after the first day. 

Then there’s the issue of vaccinations. My daughter, the vet has written an informative article on following a common sense vaccination protocol for our kitties. She does not advocate repeated vaccinations for indoor housecats, after kittenhood immunity has been established (which lasts for a lifetime, just like us). 

Bottom line, feed your kitty the very best you can afford. As I’ve heard Karen say many times, if your budget only allows for dry food, then find the best dry food you possibly can, add water or broth to it, and try to include fresh foods into their bowls whenever you can. A rescue kitty in a home, eating kibble with some fresh food extras, is better than that kitty sitting in a shelter waiting for adoption, or worse, so don’t let food (or obesity or age) stop you from adopting a cat that really needs a home!

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