The pancreas is a long gland that lies directly beneath the stomach. A cluster of specialized cells in the pancreas produce insulin, which regulates the body's uptake and breakdown of sugar. Diabetes mellitus (usually just called diabetes or sugar diabetes) is the result of a shortage of insulin. Diabetics have intense thirst, produce large amounts of urine, and have abnormally high levels of sugar in their blood and urine. Other signs of diabetes are increased appetite and slow healing.
Left untreated, the diabetic cat will lose weight (despite eating more) and become lethargic. Later signs of untreated diabetes include vomiting, diarrhea, rapid breathing, weakness, and finally collapse and death.
Your vet's diagnosis of diabetes is based on the cat's clinical signs, physical exam findings, and laboratory test results, primarily a persistent presence of abnormally high levels of sugar in the blood and urine.
Diabetes is a disease of older cats, rarely occurring before the age of seven years. It can be managed through diet and, when necessary, supplementary insulin. With treatment, diabetic cats can live ordinary lives, and a few may return to normal function for reasons that are not well understood.
What to Do
Watch that weight. Obese cats are more likely to develop diabetes. In fact, cats who weigh in at 15 pounds or more have double the risk of diabetes than the under-15-pound crowd. Keeping your cat's weight under control is a simple formula: Feed only the recommended amounts, limit (or eliminate) snacks and treats, and make sure Tabby stays active.
You are what you eat. A high-fiber diet helps control diabetes by regulating the rate at which nutrients are taken into body cells. This, in turn, keeps blood sugar levels more consistent. Feeding several small meals during the day has a similar effect on blood sugar. A couple of large meals spread several hours apart cause a post-meal blood sugar surge, followed by a below-normal level by the time the next meal comes around. A normal cat's body smooths out these peaks and valleys, but it's a problem for diabetics. Many diabetic cats can have their blood sugar levels returned to normal through diet and weight loss alone.
Be prepared. One of the most important aspects of managing the health of a diabetic cat is consistency. Food and medication must come at regular times, so be sure you always have an adequate supply of both and never skip or substitute.
Occasionally, a diabetic cat on insulin will have her blood sugar level suddenly swing dangerously to the low side -- a condition known as hypoglycemia. Signs of hypoglycemia include shaking, disorientation, salivating, staggering and falling, and seizures. Keep an emergency sugar source on hand at all times (honey or Karo syrup are the usual recommendations). At the first sign of hypoglycemia, rub some on the cat's gums -- and call the vet immediately.
When to Call the Vet
If your cat shows signs of diabetes, schedule a veterinary exam as soon as possible. The longer a diabetic cat goes untreated, the more serious her condition gets. The earlier you can catch and control her diabetes, the more likely she is to have a normal life.
A cat who's already being treated for diabetes needs to go to the vet immediately if she shows signs of hypoglycemia or any kind of reaction to her medication.
DANGER LEVEL: Untreated diabetes and hypoglycemia are extremely dangerous; however, both can be treated and controlled.
While diabetes is a serious problem for cats, we will discuss an even more dire condition in our next section -- FIV, or what is commonly referred to as "feline AIDS."