Why has the incidence of diabetes in felines increased in recent years?

This week we had a client write in about why a diabetes company would sell feline Greenies, which are not a low carbohydrate cat treat. My answer to her was this: cats are like potato chips, in that few of us manage to have “just one”. We sell Greenies because so many of us have non-diabetic cats, and word on the cat street is that Greenies are delicious! This got me thinking about what we feed our cats, and to offer some suggestions for feeding our non-diabetic cats.

When my now 9-year old cats were kittens, I wish I had fed them differently. I wish I had offered them both canned and dry food instead of only kibble. I now have a cat that looks at me like I’ve lost my marbles if I put canned food down in front of him. His look suggests, “What is this slop you are giving me?!?” Should I ever need to have him on a canned only diet (as we suggest for diabetic felines) I’d be in big trouble. If your cats are kittens, do yourself a favor and be sure to offer canned food in addition to kibble.

In addition to offering a variety of food textures to cats, we should be cautious when we offer a new food. Cats not only form strong food preferences (such as flavor and texture), they also form strong aversions to food. Food aversion is one reason why I never start a cat on a new prescription diet while a pet is hospitalized. I figure a patient may associate the taste of the new food with being hospitalized. You can bet I wait until a pet feels safe and sound in his own home before I offer a new diet choice.

Okay, we’ve harped on our readers enough about feeding diabetic cats canned only, low-carb diets. But what about feeding non-diabetic cats? The incidence of diabetes has risen dramatically over the last 2 decades. Certainly the higher population of indoor only cats and subsequent obesity from the lower activity level plays a role. So what can we do regarding the diet of these indoor only cats who are now predisposed to obesity secondary to a sedentary lifestyle? Obesity is a big risk factor for type 2 diabetes in felines!

Let’s stop feeding ad lib. Most dogs are fine with meal feeding. Cats may prefer to constantly have food available and to nibble a bit all day long, but if your cat is chubby, free feeding (meaning food is always available) is a big No-No. Again, I am a cat lady who bends over backwards to please her felines. The motto in my household is, “If kitty ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Nonetheless, if they can’t push away from the table on their own, we must do it for them. Trust me, I know how hard it is. One of my cats has been “on a diet” for 7 years! I swear she thinks I am trying to starve her.

Back to the carb issue if your cat is not diabetic. There are a few generalities regarding dry versus canned food. Kibble (extruded food) requires a certain amount of carbohydrate to keep the shape. Canned food tends to be much lower in carbohydrate than dry foods. Kibble that is low in fat tends to be higher in carbohydrates. Kibble that is lower in carbohydrates tends to be higher in fat. Canned food can contain higher protein content than kibble, and protein provides a feeling of fullness. A high fat content also provides fullness, but fat is much higher in calories than protein and carbohydrates.

If you have a non-diabetic yet tubby feline in your house, you are probably better off with at least part if not all of the diet being canned food. Additionally, canned food has a higher water content than kibble, so the pet feels “full” sooner than when eating a comparable calorie portion of dry food. If your cat is not diabetic, we don’t need to be so cautious with the carbohydrate limitations, but a canned, lower carb, lower fat, high protein diet (such as those we feed diabetic felines) may help your cat lose weight. Proper body weight may in turn decrease the chance of your cat getting diabetes.

Now, what if you have a svelt energizer-bunny non-diabetic cat in your household along with a diabetic kitty? That cat can probably eat dry food ad lib without issue, but your diabetic cat should be kept away from the slim cat’s kibble. Your slim cat will likely do just fine on your diabetic cat’s low carb canned food. Heck, the low carb, high protein canned food we suggest for diabetic cats is much like cats would eat when hunting in nature, being the little carnivores that they are.

I hope today’s article has helped you. If nothing else, perhaps you will feel less alone when you orchestrate feeding schedules and diets in a multi-cat household. As always, you must consult your veterinarian regarding diet choices for your pet.

NOTE: Consult your veterinarian first to make sure my recommendations fit your pets special health needs.

Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr . Joi Sutton

Dr. Joi Sutton is a 1993 graduate from Oregon State University. She has practiced both in emergency medicine and general practice. Dr. Sutton has done extensive international volunteer work though Veterinary Ventures, a nonprofit organization that takes teams of veterinarians to undeveloped countries for humane medical care. She also runs a small animal practice in South Florida.
Dr . Joi Sutton