Tiger was a big-boned tabby full of cuddles and good-natured attitude. He didn’t mind me wearing him around my neck like a scarf when it was cold, and did a great impression of a dust-buster when I held him up above my head to snork up a bug high on the wall. Tiger was an awesome cat.
He was also diabetic. It never slowed him down.
November is National Diabetes Month, the perfect time to learn about caring for cats and dogs with the disease. I’m no veterinarian, so the information below is based entirely on internet sources and on my own experience with Tiger, who lived with diabetes on and off for six years. As always, you should consult a professional if you have concerns about your own pet.
Like in humans, feline diabetes is a breakdown in the body’s management of insulin: either production of the hormone is too low or resistance to it is too high. Insulin clears excess sugar out of the bloodstream, so not having enough of it available and usable raises blood sugar levels. Symptoms of diabetes include drinking more water, urinating more (sometimes even outside the litter box), eating more and losing weight.
Obesity is a common trigger for diabetes because it can make tissue less responsive to insulin. Other risk factors for cats include being male and older. Tiger developed diabetes after a vet put him on steroids to treat a cough.
One difference in the disease between humans and cats: cats can get over it. Sometimes their diabetes just disappears, which happened to Tiger. His came back, though for some cats it doesn’t. Human diabetics, on the other hand, don’t go into remission.
Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine offers a helpful webpage about treating diabetic cats. It cautions that they do best with consistent medication and feeding times (if on insulin, they should get it soon after eating), minimal stress and a healthy weight.
The best treatment for diabetes varies by cat, so it can take some trial and error to find the right regimen. Some get by with oral medication, but most need insulin injections. There are different kinds of insulin, and individual cats respond to them differently.
Like most diabetic cats, Tiger got two insulin injections a day. He didn’t seem to notice that we were sticking a needle into his scruff. He did notice that he got a freeze-dried fish treat after every shot, which was a bonus for everyone because we didn’t have to chase him down at medication time: he always showed up in the kitchen on time for his shot.
I was more bothered by the shots than Tiger was, but I felt better about things once I stopped thinking of him as sickly. As long as we followed the vet’s instructions, he went on with life as usual, purring and kvetching as he felt appropriate. To help change my attitude I got a pretty little wood bureau on eBay that had perfect drawers and a cupboard for storing needles, cotton swabs and alcohol, so we didn’t have to look at them all the time but they were still handy on the kitchen counter. A cookie jar kept used sharps safe and out of sight. Everything felt normal.
Watch how easy injecting insulin is once you get used to it. Notice how entirely unruffled the cat is. I am not ruling out the possibility that sedatives were involved in the making of this video, but this is the same non-reaction Tiger had, so I doubt it. Also notice that the woman in the video is on her own. Once you get the hang of it, you don’t need a second person to hold the cat while you inject the insulin. The cat isn’t going to go anywhere because he doesn’t really care.
The symptoms of diabetes are the same in dogs as in cats. VCA Hospitals’ webpage lists the big ones: urinating more, drinking more water, eating more and losing weight. Contact a vet promptly if you notice some or all of these symptoms, because diabetes can be life-threatening if it isn’t treated. If it is treated properly, dogs can live with it for years.
For the most part, the information above about cats applies to dogs as well, but there are a few differences. WebMD says that oral medications aren’t effective treatments for diabetic dogs, while they are helpful for some cats. Another difference is that female dogs are much more likely to develop diabetes than males, which is just the opposite of cats.
Giving insulin to a dog is pretty much the same as with a cat. Here are detailed instructions for giving a dog an insulin injection, and this video demonstrates the technique:
One tip for preparing insulin shots for dogs or cats that doesn’t appear in any of these links: insert the needle into the rubber portion of the insulin jar’s lid only once, because piercing the rubber dulls the needle’s point. I was taught that if I didn’t draw enough insulin into the syringe the first time, I should throw it away and start over with a new one.
Another tip: you may have to change your usual arrangements for providing care for your companion animal when you are out of town. A twice-daily injection schedule is common, and it is important to administer the insulin around the same time every day. The same goes for food. The more regular and controlled food and insulin are, the more stable your pet’s blood sugar will be. That means that if someone comes to your house to feed your dog or cat, schedule them to come twice a day at specific times.
You should also be more selective in who cares for your pet. Make sure the person is experienced and comfortable with injecting insulin. One place to start the hunt for your dream kitty/puppy-sitter is at your vet’s office. Many veterinary technicians moonlight as petsitters, and they tend to know their way around a syringe.
The bottom line: your cat or dog can live a long, happy life after a diabetes diagnosis. Just get good veterinary treatment (this post is NOT a substitute for a trip to the vet!) and be conscientious about home care like insulin injections. Then play, cuddle, and love as usual!
Photo credit: Thinkstock/pyotr021