By Aly Semigran
If your cat has been diagnosed with diabetes, there are several treatment options available to help your feline live a long, healthy life. But is there a way for cat parents to avoid regular insulin shots and rely on natural remedies alone? Not exactly, says Dr. Tara Koble, DVM of The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital, in Boise, Ida.
“Some diabetic cats can be managed on a low-carb food alone, without insulin,” says Koble. ”This is the only ‘natural’ treatment that sometimes works by itself. Many cats need a combination of a low-carb food and insulin.”
Most veterinarians agree that natural supplements that tout diabetes remedies don’t work as effective treatment options. Insulin shots may be a necessary means to managing a diabetic cat’s health.
“There is no ‘natural’ replacement for insulin. However, insulin itself is a naturally occurring hormone, and in cats who need it, we are just technically replacing what is lacking,” says Koble. “Other natural supplements that are marketed for diabetes just help support the overall health of the cat but they don't treat the disease directly.”
On the other hand, there is a natural approach to preventing diabetes in cats that is highly effective. Koble recommends pet parents pay close attention to diet and exercise. “The two best things any cat parent can help do to protect from diabetes would be to feed the highest quality canned, low-carb or raw diet that is possible,” she says. “The second critical thing to help prevent diabetes is to get your cat moving. Exercise is protective against diabetes, and indoor only cats are usually lacking severely in activity.”
What Causes Diabetes In Cats
Not dissimilar to type 2 diabetes in people, most cases of diabetes in cats occur when a cat’s blood sugar rises because its body is no longer responding to insulin in a normal manner. The pancreas can initially respond by producing more insulin, but the cells that make insulin eventually “wear out.”
While diabetes is more likely to happen in obese, middle-aged, indoor cats, it can affect any feline at any age and weight.
If your cat has been diagnosed with diabetes, there are several factors that could have led to the development of the disease. Koble explains that some of the causes include, “genetic predisposition, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, diet (high-carbohydrate, dry kibble), and the deposition of amyloid in the islets of the pancreas.”
Koble notes that diabetes in cats is not just caused by one of these issues—it is usually a combination of multiple problems.
How To Tell If Your Cat Has Diabetes
While there are a few things to look out for, Dr. Erika Raines, DVM, CVA, CVSMT, of the Holistic Pet Vet Clinic in Tigard, Ore., says more frequent drinking and urination is the biggest sign of diabetes in cats. She notes that cats may also develop diabetic neuropathy, “where they start to lose nerve function in their back legs and have weak hind legs as a result.” Raines says that the most common sign of neuropathy is a cat who walks flat on his back legs with his hocks on the ground.
A change in eating and drinking routines may also signal the onset of diabetes in cats. “Without insulin, [a cat’s] body can't use glucose. So in the beginning you notice your cat is really hungry and is still losing weight,” says Koble. “The body also tries to dilute the high sugar by increasing the thirst, so cats that are diabetic will drink and urinate much more than a healthy cat.”
If you notice any of these signs, take your cat to the veterinarian immediately. If untreated, diabetes in cats can lead to severe issues, including weakness in the legs (diabetic neuropathy), diabetic ketoacidosis, infections, cataracts, nausea, kidney failure, severe dehydration, seizures, coma, and even death, explains Koble.
Insulin Treatments: A Common Option
While lifestyle and dietary changes may assist a cat in managing diabetes, Koble notes that many cats will need to receive insulin shots “before going into remission.”
Insulin, as Koble explains, is a hormone that is made in the pancreas that regulates blood sugar (glucose) levels. The more insulin secreted, the lower the blood sugar will drop. The less insulin that is secreted, the higher the blood sugar will remain. When there is not enough insulin, blood sugar remains high, resulting in diabetes.
For cats that do require insulin, most cats need a dose every 12 hours. Koble adds, “All insulin is safe when used properly.”
Any cat with diabetes will have to maintain visits with their vets based on their diagnosis. “Some [vets] require frequent office visits for blood sugar measurements and some prefer to empower clients to do monitoring at home,” Koble explains. “If a cat is well regulated and doing well, there may be up to six months on average between recommended visits.”
Natural Options to Help Manage Diabetes in Cats
While insulin may be necessary to ensure effectiveness in managing diabetes in cats, pet parents can also take a natural approach to diet and lifestyle changes following a diabetes diagnosis.
Raines recommends a low-carb diet without the addition of grains, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and green peas. “If you are feeding raw or home cooking your cat's diet, definitely make sure that it is balanced appropriately,” she says, “This can be done by purchasing a supplement designed to balance a home prepared diet, or by purchasing commercially prepared complete raw diets.”
In addition to natural dietary changes, Raines says diabetic cats may also benefit from a cranberry-based urinary supplement since “diabetic cats can be at a higher risk for bladder infections.”
When searching for a natural urinary supplement, look for companies that perform independent testing and for products that have the GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) label. It’s best to work directly with your veterinarian to ensure safe and proper supplementation for your diabetic cat.
Most importantly, never change your cat’s insulin dose or diet without first talking to your veterinarian. Oftentimes, a cat’s insulin needs will change when they start eating a different food. A mismatch between diet and insulin can result in serious and even fatal complications.