Cats and dogs go about diabetes completely differently; while dogs almost always require insulin injections to manage their blood sugar levels, cats have the equivalent of type 2 diabetes in humans.
This means that cats don’t have an absolute insulin deficiency. Rather, they have a relative deficiency—sometimes because they have insulin resistance, and sometimes because they don’t produce quite enough insulin.
Diabetic cats, like many humans with type 2 diabetes, are generally overweight to obese. And just as type 2 diabetes in humans can sometimes be managed with diet and exercise, the same holds true for feline friends. While cats with diabetes are generally started on insulin to regulate their blood sugar, over time, cats on the appropriate diet will lose weight and can often be put into diabetic remission.
Before we discuss the best diet for a diabetic cat, let’s just quickly review the diet of a normal, healthy cat.
Cats are carnivores, meaning that they eat a meat-based diet. A meat-based diet provides the nutrients that their bodies require, including amino acids they can’t produce on their own and appropriate amounts of protein.
Consider for a moment the diet of wild cats—feral cats around your neighborhood, or even big cats like lions. They catch and eat prey throughout the day, and their prey is mostly muscle tissue, bone and fat. Except for grain found in the stomach and intestines of their prey, wild cats are not eating a ton of carbohydrates.
Now consider the diet of the average house cat. Dry cat foods by their very nature are high in carbohydrates. Otherwise the food wouldn’t be able to be put into kibble form. So while it is very convenient for owners, it’s not so healthy for cats.
The key to getting your cat’s weight and diabetes under control is feeding the appropriate diet (and of course, encouraging exercise). The goal in diabetic cats is to feed a diet with a high protein and low carbohydrate content, as this will provide improved glycemic control. This is most easily done by feeding a canned food, as you’ll be hard pressed to find a dry food with low carbohydrate content.
Ideally, you’ll want to find a canned diet with a carbohydrate content of 10% or less, and there are many, many options from which to choose. Ask your veterinarian to suggest a few, or do your own research to find a good choice for your cat. Your veterinarian can determine how many calories your cat requires each day, and from there you both can figure out how much food to feed daily (depending on the caloric content of your chosen diet). Food should split into at least two meals (morning and evening), or possibly more if you are home and your cat is more of a grazer.
If your cat is on a dry diet, it may take some work to transition her over to canned, and the transition for some cats is easier than for others. But I think it will pay off handsomely for both you and your diabetic cat in the long run, because 70-100% of diabetic cats will be able to stop insulin injections when fed an appropriate diet! Imagine a life with no insulin injections, no stressful (and costly) blood sugar curves, and no panic when you’ve accidentally run out of insulin on a weekend!
If your cat is diabetic, talk to your veterinarian about how to change your cat’s diet. You may just end up changing both of your lives!