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Does Your Diabetic Cat Need a Special Diet?

Finding the right diabetic cat food doesn’t have to be a financial or emotional struggle.

by Helin Jung
November 22, 2021
Cat eating out of a red bowl
motortion / Adobe Stock

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One way in which cats are like people is that as they get older, their bodies don’t function as well as they used to. And, like people, cats can develop diabetes as part of their descent into decrepitude, though they may not feel as much existential angst about it as we do (my brain likes to reject this idea; all cats must live forever). Anyway, here’s what you should know about diabetes in cats and the diabetic cat food that’s right for them.

What are the early signs of diabetes in cats?

“Diabetes usually presents itself in middle-aged to senior cats,” says Dr. Bruce Kornreich, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, and the director of the Cornell Feline Health Center. If you notice your cat showing signs of increased thirst and urination, ravenous appetite, and/or weight loss, you should talk to your veterinarian about checking your cat’s blood glucose levels. Because diabetes affects many organ systems in the body, it’s best not to leave it untreated. Dr. Kornreich adds, “Uncontrolled diabetes is associated with poor outcomes.” 

If you have an outdoor cat, or one who is in the early stages of the disease, these symptoms may go entirely unnoticed. The best way to stay apprised of your cat’s health is to pay attention to the frequency with which they use the litter box, as well as the amount of times you have to refill their water bowl every week. (If your cat has been drinking out of the faucet, that could also be a sign of increased thirst, which is a symptom of the disease.) An easy way to do this is to make a note of the number of times they’ve urinated when scooping the litter box daily. That way, you’ll be able to point to quantifiable data when describing your cat’s new behaviors to your veterinarian.

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How is diabetes in cats treated?

Cats with diabetes need to be treated with a combination of insulin and diet. “Diet will help in terms of maintaining the appropriate weight,” Dr. Kornreich says, and the right diet will be beneficial for your cat’s metabolism. A cat’s diabetes can go into remission, which means that insulin would not need to be administered further, but it’s hard to get to that point if you have an overweight or obese cat.

Some medications, like corticosteroids, can also cause predispositions to diabetes in cats, so reducing your cat’s intake of these drugs can help prevent them from developing the disease. Monitoring your cat’s health, such as blood glucose level and weight, can also aid in stabilizing them after their initial diagnosis.

What is the appropriate diet for a diabetic cat?

Your vet may prescribe a therapeutic diet for your cat, but you don’t have to stick to that. There are suitable canned and dry options available both by prescription and over the counter. “Some people think diabetic cats can’t eat dry food,” Dr. Kornreich says. “That’s not true.” 

While prescription diets and homemade meals are ideal for managing your cat’s diabetes, they may be more expensive. It’s possible to find the right diet over the counter, but discuss your options with your vet first. According to Dr. Kornreich, the food should be low in carbohydrates (less than 12%), but moderate-to-high in protein (greater than 40%). 

Is there anything you can do to prevent diabetes in cats?

“The most important thing is to not let your cat get overweight or obese,” Dr. Kornreich says. “We know that cats who are overweight are predisposed to developing diabetes.”  While a chonky cat might have more for us to love, they may end up suffering unnecessarily in the long run.

writer helin jung and cat

Helin Jung

Helin Jung is a writer in Los Angeles.