Pyewacket is a 15-year-old kitty who developed diabetes around age 10. This cute little tortie is doing fine now, but this wasn’t always the case.
Her human, Rhiannon, wrote me to share a cautionary tale she thought other cat caretakers would benefit from. She was very generous to come forward and I agreed that we needed to share what she learned so other cat lovers can protect their cat from going through what Pye went through.
It’s a story about how (yay!) we can often turn feline diabetes around with diet, BUT there are potentially fatal dangers in not doing it right – it’s about how to avoid a tragic mistake that has happened all too often.
Here’s the story, mostly in Rhiannon’s words, with some takeaways and details by me…
Rhiannon was giving Pye 12 units of insulin a day and her diabetes still wasn’t under control.
She began to learn more about feline nutrition and found that a low carb, high protein diet could turn feline diabetes around. One study found that 68% of diabetic cats fed a carbohydrate-restricted canned diet no longer needed extra insulin at all (according to Antech Diagnostic News, December 2003). So Rhiannon decided to try a low carb food. Her cat did so well that after two months, her blood sugar was normal with just 2 units of insulin daily – which sounds great at first, but suddenly, unexpectedly, things went terribly wrong.
Six to eight weeks is usually how long it takes a cat to adjust to new food, so Rhiannon thought (and her vet didn’t contradict her) that Pye’s insulin requirements had stabilized. But about two weeks after she last had her cat’s sugar checked, Pye’s pancreas “woke back up” and started producing insulin — suddenly she was getting too much insulin, which is very dangerous!
This meant her cat was essentially starving to death, with no sugar in her blood to sustain muscles, heart, and brain. It also caused dehydration that weakened her kidneys. All this happened in less than two weeks. What fooled Rhiannon was the fact that Pye’s symptoms of too much insulin were identical with what too little insulin looked like. So, for the first week, Rhiannon thought her insulin had just gotten old and she wasted time and money getting a fresh bottle!
While Rhiannon was aware of the risk in general, she had been led to believe (all too commonly) that she could just have Pye tested at the vet’s office every few weeks and watch for symptoms at home. But it turned out that the symptoms of too much insulin can look exactly like too little…
…and by the time you realize your cat had too much insulin, it could be too late.
Should you try to help your cat reverse her diabetes with a low carb diet? Probably, but ONLY if her insulin levels and dosage are watched properly… as Lisa A. Pierson, DVM explains: “If you change your diabetic cat’s diet to one with lower carbohydrates, he will, in all probability, IMMEDIATELY (not days or weeks later) require a reduction in his insulin dosage. He may also immediately go into ‘remission’ and not need any insulin at all. If this warning is ignored, you may very well end up with a cat in a hypoglycemic crisis (dangerously low blood sugar) which can result in death, or brain damage.”
What Rhiannon would do differently: She says, “If your cat is on insulin and you are short on funds, you should probably wait [to switch to a low/zero carb diet] until you’ve got the financial resources to buy a home test kit or get your cat tested frequently…” Your cat will need regular testing for the rest of her life. (Dr. Hodgkins, the vet who runs Your DiabeticCat.com, recommends daily testing, even more than once per day, as with human diabetes. See resources below.)
The good news is a low carb diet can shift diabetic cats into remission. The bad news is that there are life-threatening risks in doing this without frequent testing (at your vet’s office or with home tests) because you no longer know exactly how much insulin to give as the pancreas starts producing again. As Dr. Pierson explains, if your cat is receiving insulin and you switch to a low carb (eg, grain-free) diet without lowering the insulin dosage properly, you will be putting your cat at significant risk.
A happy ending and a couple other lessons learned…
After her ordeal, Pye was put on a low-protein diet temporarily, supplemented by potassium, and recovered. But as you can imagine, the whole episode was really hard on her and Rhiannon was worried about her kidneys being able to rally after all that. The good news is that, over a year later, she’s stable and happy on a low carb, grain-free diet again, with 8 units of insulin a day.
But, Rhiannon also wanted to suggest cat caretakers think carefully before you put a cat on prednisolone (steroids), as it may trigger diabetes for some cats. Pye had severe gingivitis when she was adopted and the vets put her on prednisolone for it, but it didn’t prevent Pye from having to have all her teeth removed, and Rhiannon later found out steroids can tip a predisposed cat into diabetes.
Also, there was another set back when she was talked into trying a “prescription” Metabolic Diet food for Pye. It was supposed to be good for diabetic kitties and fill them up, but the diet not only made her cat beg for food MORE, three weeks into the change, Pye started throwing up. So it seems the food was irritating her stomach, and Rhiannon believes it could have led to Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome if she hadn’t taken Pye off of it.
Fortunately, after a two-day hunger strike, Pye was willing to get back on her grain-free wet foods again and is doing great again!
RESOURCES FOR YOU
- Excellent details on in-home blood sugar monitoring for cats, including what’s involved and product recommendations are in this FAQ and protocol by Dr. Hogkins and this article by Dr. Lisa Pierson.
- Dr. Elizabeth Hodgkins has a comprehensive site for helping you with your diabetic cat, focused around a very specific, successful low carb diet and insulin management protocol, and there are forums provided for extra support too: YourDiabeticCat.com.