Caring For a Diabetic Cat Gets Easier With Time, Study Shows

A survey of the owners of diabetic cats finds that although diagnosis is a worrying time, things get better. 

Caring for a diabetic cat gets easier with time. Photo shows cat napping by window
Photo: Richy99/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Diabetes mellitus affects around 1 in 80 cats in the US. It is most common in cats that are neutered males, over 7 years old, obese, indoors-only or inactive, on certain types of medication (glucocorticoids or progestagens), and in Burmese cats (Sparkes et al 2015). The signs include excessive thirst, excessive urination, lethargy, weight loss, and extreme hunger. So long as the condition is well-managed, the prognosis for the cat is good. Research by Dr. Carolina Albuquerque and colleagues, published in 2019 in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, looks at owners’ experiences of getting this diagnosis for their cat and subsequent treatment. 

The survey (in fact two separate but similar surveys) involved 748 guardians of cats with diabetes mellitus. The results showed that while many people had initial concerns about the effects on their life, once treatment was under way many of those concerns were reduced. In particular, once treatment was in place, only 17% felt that it negatively affected their relationship with their pet (compared to 40% before starting treatment). 

Because many cats who are treated for diabetes mellitus go into remission (up to 84%), this is the initial aim of treatment, according to the report. For those cats that don’t go into remission and still have diabetes 6 months later, the aim is to control blood glucose levels effectively. Cats with diabetes mellitus typically have insulin injections (often, but not always, twice a day) and are also often fed a low-carbohydrate diet. 

It is understandable that having to draw insulin into a syringe and inject it into your cat might feel difficult at first. Only 49% of cat guardians said they were supervised by their vet or a vet tech when drawing up the insulin (or a saline solution) and injecting it for the first time. 25% said they were not shown how to draw insulin into the syringe, and 27% said they were not told how to inject it. 

But even for the very first time, around 50% of people said it was ‘not difficult at all’ to measure the right amount of insulin in the syringe, and over 30% said it was ‘not difficult at all’ to give it. Things really improved with experience. At the time of the most recent injection, over 90% of people said it was ‘not difficult at all’ to draw up the insulin and do the injection. 

How to inject a cat with insulin is shown in the video below from International Cat Care, who are not connected to the study. 

Many people turned to websites and online forums to learn more about feline diabetes, with 76% saying they found these helpful, while 74% found discussions with the vet helpful. Only 34% of people said they found written information (e.g. handouts) from their vet helpful, compared to 24% who said it was not helpful and 42% who did not receive such info. 

Almost everyone said the most important thing when deciding on treatment was ‘what is best for my cat’, and 86% also picked what was recommended by the vet. People’s main concerns were about the costs of treatment, and what to do about their cat when they went on holiday. But the good news, write the scientists, is that, 
“Overall, owners felt that caring for a diabetic cat had less effect on their daily lives and their human–pet relationship than they had believed it would before starting treatment.” 

Of the cats in the study, 90% were treated with insulin, with Lente being the most common type of insulin in the UK and Glargine being the most common in the US, Canada, and Australia. 33% were on a vet-recommended diet and 28% were on a diet chosen by their owner to help with the diabetes, leaving 39% not on any special kind of diet. People said they did not like the high cost of veterinary-prescribed diets, and they also said they did not like it if their vet did not talk about diet with them. 

71% of the cats' guardians were using home blood glucose monitoring; 27% because their vet recommended it and 53% because they had read about it on the internet. The most common way to do this was via ‘the vein on the edge of the cat’s ear’. Overall, 50% said that starting to do home blood glucose monitoring was easy or very easy. As well as recommending watching videos of how to do it, the other piece of advice people said they would give was ‘warming the ear first, using a water bottle warmed in the microwave’. 

The video below from International Cat Care shows how to test a cat’s blood glucose levels at home by collecting a drop of blood from the marginal vein in the cat’s ear. 

Of course, this was an online survey and it is likely that many of the people who answered are particularly dedicated cat guardians. But the results provide useful information for vets about how people manage their cat’s diabetes, sources of information, and what they would like to know. The websites recommended in the study as sources of information are and   

I think the results of this study will be especially re-assuring for people whose cat was just diagnosed with diabetes mellitus. They show that giving the insulin injections becomes quite easy with time, and that it generally does not affect people’s relationship with their pet in the ways they initially feared it might. Some people decide not to treat their cat's diabetes, and hopefully these results will encourage people that it is probably easier than they think.

The results also show the importance of good resources for people whose cat has diabetes given that there is only limited time to discuss it in a veterinary consult, it is a complex condition, and people may think of questions later. 

If your cat has diabetes, what concerns did you have at diagnosis? And how do you find caring for them now? 

If you liked this post, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. Dr. Sarah Ellis says, "Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read!" 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Albuquerque, C. S., Bauman, B. L., Rzeznitzeck, J., Caney, S. M., & Gunn-Moore, D. A. (2020). Priorities on treatment and monitoring of diabetic cats from the owners’ points of view. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 22(6), 506-513.
Sparkes, A. H., Cannon, M., Church, D., Fleeman, L., Harvey, A., Hoenig, M., Peterson, M.E., Reusch, C.E., Taylor, S. & Rosenberg, D. (2015). ISFM consensus guidelines on the practical m

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