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Cats develop diabetes due to a poor/species-inappropriate diet, it really is that simple to prevent diabetes. Anecdotally speaking, in almost 11 years of the list with thousands of cats having come through my cyber door, I have yet to see one cat develop diabetes on a raw diet or even a low-carb canned diet for that matter.
Kibble-fed cats on the other hand are far more prone to several ills including diabetes (and IBD, obesity, CRF, etc.). This makes sense based on cat physiology; it shouldn’t surprise us that feeding an obligate carnivore a grain-based diet is going to hurt them at some point (usually the hens come home to roost around middle age).
As with humans, in cats, eating stimulates insulin production in the pancreas. Given cats’ prey animals/birds contain mostly meat, moderate amounts of fat, and very low carbohydrate, cat pancreas are not built to pump out large amounts of insulin on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, most commercial diets especially kibble, contain 2-10X as much carb as that contained in a mouse. A cat’s pancreas is not meant to deal with such a carbohydrate overload. Carbs elevate glucose levels which in turn is the pancreas’ cue to produce more insulin. Over time, large amount of carbs leads to pancreas injury or overload, which can manifest in different ways e.g. pancreas inflammation (pancreatitis), the ultimate result is lowered ability to produce insulin.
Various drugs e.g. hormones such as Ovaban, and steroids e.g. Prednisone, can further complicate matters as they too have been known to cause diabetes. On my list (Holisticat), we’ve had numerous cases of diabetes following a single steroid injection.
Bottom line - when a cat's pancreas does not produce (enough) insulin, s/he can develop diabetes. This can occur when the hypothalamus feedback loop is out of whack because the pancreas does not read the signal given by the body when it eats, and does not produce insulin.
Sometimes the pancreas does indeed produce insulin but this isn't absorbed by the cells in the body which usually take the glucose that is a by-product of digestion. So the insulin is in the bloodstream but not in the tissues/cells where it is needed for energy; glucose levels builds up in the blood. The high levels of “blood sugar”, as it is sometimes called, spill over and are excreted in the cat's urine.
A blood test can be used to detect diabetes based on the blood glucose value. Usually a blood glucose value higher than 80 - 120 mg/dl (adjusting upwards to account for stress at the vet’s) indicates cause for concern. A vigilant human companion can also often detect the following signs:
- frequent or excessive drinking - Polydipsia (PD)
- frequent or excessive urination - Polyuria (PU)
- weight loss in spite of the fact that kitty has a good appetite and eats well; conversely in some cats sudden and complete loss of appetite is the only sign something’s wrong
- sweet breath from high blood sugar levels
- oily skin (not just spiky fur, but under it as well)
Another less common sign seen in some diabetic cats is a cat suddenly sleeping a lot more than usual with or without the above symptoms.