Diet plays a huge role in preventing diabetes in cats. As is the case in people, most cats with the disease develop what is called type 2 diabetes, which is intimately related to the food we eat.
Some cats do develop a different type of diabetes — type 1 diabetes. In these cases, feeding an appropriate diet is very important in managing the disease, but unfortunately won’t do anything to prevent the condition.
Two aspects of the diet are critical to preventing type 2 diabetes in cats.
1. The Type of Food
Cats are carnivores. While they can use carbohydrates as an energy source, their physiology is not designed to handle large amounts of carbohydrates in the diet (they actually lack several of the digestive enzymes that other species use to break down carbohydrates). The feline body is a protein and fat metabolizing machine.
Over-feeding carbohydrates to some cats causes them to become insulin resistant. In other words, they are still making an appropriate amount of insulin, but their cells don’t react to it in the normal way. The pancreas (the organ than makes insulin) responds by trying to make more insulin but with time it essentially wears out and can’t meet the body’s needs. At this point, the cat has diabetes.
Feeding cats a low carbohydrate – high protein – moderate fat diet can prevent insulin resistance and diabetes in at-risk cats. In general, this means feeding your cat a canned cat food, but watch out for varieties that contain more carbohydrates than you might expect. Dry foods are relatively high in carbohydrates, although some are much lower than others, so if you have to feed dry, choose wisely. A rough estimate of a food’s carbohydrate content can be calculated using information provided on the product label.
2. The Amount of Food
Another critical aspect of a cat’s diet is the amount of food he or she eats. Obesity is probably the most important risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. Therefore, even if you feed your cat a low carbohydrate – high protein – moderate fat diet, you can negate its beneficial effects by feeding too much of it.
How much to feed is determined by an almost infinite number of variables: the food’s caloric density, how many and what type of treats a cat gets throughout the day, variations in exercise, metabolic rate, ambient temperature, health status, and more. A simple solution is to feed with a goal of maintaining a slim body condition while a kitten is growing, and then once a cat has matured, weigh him or her monthly and fine tune the amount of food you are offering based on weight gain or loss.
Of course, we all have known obese cats who have eaten nothing but high carbohydrate dry foods for their entire lives and never developed diabetes. Diabetes is a multifactorial disease meaning that genetics, exercise, and other factors we haven’t yet recognized also play roles in its development.
Diet and obesity are not the only risk factors for diabetes, just the two most important ones over which we have control.
Dr. Jennifer Coates