Eating to Beat Feline Diabetes

Morris Animal Foundation – December 23, 2003

Hello, dinner. Goodbye, insulin.

Three summers ago, Barbara Schneider came home from a trip and found her six-year-old cat, Smokey, lying with his head in the water bowl and his litter box looking like someone had poured a glass of water into it.

Until then, Smokey and his sister, Peaches, had been perfectly healthy except for bad teeth. Both cats were allowed to free feed on dry food because Barbara had been told it was better for their teeth. Although Peaches stayed tiny, Smokey was very heavy. The extra weight took its toll, and Smokey was diagnosed with feline diabetes. Insulin helped somewhat, but the twice-daily shots were grueling. In addition, the disease had severely damaged Smokey’s kidneys.

After treating Smokey with insulin for some time, the Schneiders took him to Colorado State University’s veterinary hospital to see if the school could offer additional treatment options. They met with Dr. Deborah Greco, who offered to enroll Smokey in a new Morris Animal Foundation-funded study. With help from the Foundation, Dr. Greco and her fellow investigator, Dr. Mark Peterson, were exploring options for controlling diabetes through diet rather than insulin. Barbara said yes immediately.

According to Dr. Greco, feline diabetes is similar to type II diabetes in humans because it is caused by too much body fat. It occurs most often in obese male cats, and 45 percent of all cats between the ages of eight and 12 are overweight or obese.

“”The way to control the disease is to reduce the amount of body fat,”” says Dr. Greco.

Traditionally, diabetic cats are given a high-fiber diet to help them lose weight. The cats lose fat but, unfortunately, also lose muscle. Once they go off the diet, the weight returns. Dr. Greco believes a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet helps cats lose fat while maintaining the muscle needed to keep the weight off permanently.

“”It’s the Atkins diet for cats,”” says Dr. Greco, who is now at The Animal Medical Center in New York. She states that, in general, cats should not consume high-carbohydrate diets, which is what most dry foods offer.

“”Canned diets provide more water in the food,”” she says, “”and you can control the portions.””

While the jury is still out on the health effects of the Atkins diet for humans, this study showed a resounding benefit to feeding cats a high-protein diet. Of the cats on the high-fiber diet, 40 percent went off insulin completely. For those on the high-protein diet, a whopping 68 percent went off insulin. Although both groups saw improvement, Dr. Greco firmly believes that a high-protein fare is best because it is similar to what cats would eat in the wild.

“”The thing that convinced me this was the right diet was the quality of life for these cats improved,”” she says. “”They become kittens again.””

Some cats, like Smokey, experienced a complete turnaround. Though diabetes has permanently damaged his kidneys, he is off insulin and much slimmer. His coat shines. He plays and even caught a mouse recently in the Schneiders’ basement. Barbara says that three years ago, Smokey couldn’t even get up to chase a mouse, much less catch one. Going into the study, she had no expectations. Smokey’s kidneys were failing, and his health was deteriorating.

“”Had this not worked out, I probably would have had to put him to sleep,”” Barbara says. “”I put all of my faith in the doctors. When it turned out this well, it was absolutely remarkable.””

Study co-sponsor: Nancy Sullivan in honor of Albert.


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