Diabetic Cat Dilemmas

by Lyn T. Garson, CVT

Take a peek in your refrigerator. Or perhaps in the fruit bowl on your kitchen counter. What you are looking for is an orange, or even a grapefruit- but not to eat. In the veterinary hospital, a ripe orange or grapefruit is often used for teaching clients how to give insulin injections when their cats are newly diagnosed with diabetes. And it is not as difficult as you may think.

Diabetes Mellitus is a disease in which no insulin (Type 1, in dogs), or not enough insulin (Type II, usually in cats) is produced, resulting in high levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood. Diabetic cats typically eat excessively yet lose weight– even though many are still obese, and will drink and urinate more frequently. It is also common to see urinary tract infections in cats with diabetes, due to high sugar content of the urine creating prime conditions for bacterial growth in the bladder. Blood and urine sample testing, along with a physical examination by a veterinarian, are used to accurately diagnose diabetes.

Just as with people, insulin treatment and monitoring, along with a balance of proper diet and exercise, will help regulate blood glucose levels. Good regulation early in the course of diagnoses and treatment are key. The optimum diet for diabetic cats is a low-carbohydrate high protein food, available in either dry or canned varieties. Soft-moist food should be avoided since many brands contain sugar as a preservative. Exercise can be achieved with fishing pole type interactive cat toys, a game of laser pointer (never shine in cats eyes), or by tossing balls or toys for your cat to chase.

Diabetes can actually be reversed in some cats or may be mild enough to control via oral medication. Most cats, however, require a twice-a-day insulin injection to control symptoms and manage the disease. The physical act of giving their own pet an injection is what scares clients the most about their cat being diagnosed with diabetes. It is also the biggest barrier to those who wish to adopt a cat with diabetes. And this is where the orange comes in.

In the hospital, under the direction of a veterinarian or veterinary technician, clients first practice giving injections to an orange. This helps them gain confidence in proper handling of both bottle and syringe, drawing out the correct amount of solution (saline during practice) from the bottle into a syringe, and finally injecting the orange, repeating several times until they feel totally comfortable with the entire procedure. Next, clients practice on their cat. Cats have lots of loose skin covering their body. There is a layer of open space directly beneath the skin, and above the muscles, called the subcutaneous layer. This space is the area where the injections are given. Pinching the cat’s scruff, and pulling up the skin, forms a triangular tent-like shape into which the injection is administered.

Cats are generally very tolerant to receiving insulin due to the small amount injected through a thin tiny needle. After the initial fear subsides, clients are often surprised at how easy it is to administer insulin once they begin performing the daily treatments at home. Frequent follow-up appointments and blood testing/monitoring is ongoing with diabetic patients, so some clients even go another step further by purchasing an at-home hand-held blood glucose monitoring device kit. There are several veterinary specific models to choose from which are simple to use, have everything you need included in the kit, and require only a single drop of blood taken from the rim of the cat’s ear. This procedure can also be easily learned at the hospital.

Frequent ongoing monitoring and communication with your veterinarian and/or technician are key to managing diabetes. Although diabetic cats require life-long treatment, they can still enjoy a good quality of life. If you are considering adopting a diabetic cat, or if your present cat is ever diagnosed with diabetes, just remember to pick up an orange on your way to the veterinary hospital.