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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

My cat is about a year and a half old. I’m very concerned about diabetes — it seems extremely prevalent, if not inevitable these days in older cats, and it doesn’t just strike the obese. I don’t remember dogs and cats getting it often when I was younger.

It has to be the ingredients in cat and dog food. Any thoughts on the best type of food to get for my cat and how to prevent diabetes?

~Piper’s Mom

Siouxsie: Before we answer your question, we want to give you some brief facts about diabetes in cats. First of all, it’s not inevitable that older cats will become diabetic. According to the Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, about 1 in 400 cats develop diabetes.

Thomas: As with humans, there are three types of diabetes that occur in cats. Type I diabetes means that the cells in the pancreas don’t produce enough insulin. This is a genetic condition and it is not caused by diet.

Dahlia: In Type II diabetes, the pancreas makes enough insulin but the cat’s body doesn’t use it properly. This is the most common type of diabetes seen in cats. Obesity greatly increases the risk of Type II diabetes, and male cats apparently have twice the risk of females.

Siouxsie: Type III diabetes, or transient diabetes, causes cats to need insulin initially, but over time their systems re-regulate so they no longer need insulin.

Thomas: Some diseases such as pancreatitis or hyperthyroidism, and drugs such as megestrol acetate (Megace) or certain steroids, can cause or mimic diabetes. Burmese cats may have a genetic predisposition to developing diabetes.

This chart shows feline body conditions. A 1 is emaciated and a 9 is grossly obese. If your cat looks like a 7 or a 9, he is at a high risk of developing Type II diabetes.

Cat body condition chart. A 1 is emaciated and a 9 is grossly obese. If your cat looks like a 7 or a 9, he is at a high risk of developing Type II diabetes.

Dahlia: If a cat has Type I diabetes, he will be insulin-dependent for the rest of his life. There’s nothing that can be done to prevent Type I diabetes, as it results from a genetic factor that has nothing to do with how much or what the cat eats.

Siouxsie: Type II diabetes, on the other hand, can be prevented — or at the very least, the risk of developing it can be reduced —  by managing your cat’s weight.

Thomas: A lot of people overfeed their cats. Either their bowls are always full of dry kibble, which the cat may eat simply because she’s bored, or they feed more than the recommended amount.

Dahlia: Follow the feeding directions on the label! Dry food labels typically recommend between 1/3 and 1/2 cup per day for an adult cat between 7 and 10 pounds (3 and 4.5 kg).

Siouxsie: Canned food manufacturers generally recommend one can per day for an adult cat between 6 and 8 pounds (2.75 and 3.6 kg).

Thomas: If you feed both dry and canned food, you will have to halve the recommendation, so you would feed your cat about 1/4 cup of dry food and half a can of wet food — per day, not per serving!

Dahlia: Continuing on the food theme, we recommend that you feed your cat a high-quality food with low carbohydrate content. Premium foods tend to have better-quality ingredients and fewer additives than grocery-store brands.

Siouxsie: The price of premium foods (between $17 and $20 US for a six-pound bag) may seem ridiculously high to some people, but if you can afford it, it’s worth the price. Mama says high-quality food is “health insurance for your cat!”

Thomas: If your budget won’t allow for $17-a-bag premium foods, there are grocery-store brands that are better than others. Do your research and you’ll be able to find a good compromise between quality and affordability.

Dahlia: Some people will advocate feeding a homemade or raw-food diet to cats for optimum health and nutrition. However, before you take off on this route, know that it takes a lot of education and research to make nutritionally complete food for your cat.

Siouxsie: We’re not saying “don’t do it.” We’re saying that it’s a serious commitment, it takes more time and effort than some people are willing or able to give, and you have to do it right for the sake of your cat’s health. A badly designed raw- or homemade-food diet is worse for your cat than artificially colored crunchies that sell for $5 for a 20-pound bag.

Thomas: If you’re concerned about your cat’s weight, talk to your veterinarian about a diet and exercise plan. It’s important that weight loss be medically managed, particularly in very obese cats, because they can get very sick if they lose too much weight, too quickly.

Dahlia: In addition to diet, exercise is very important for keeping your cat in top health. Play is great fun, not only for your kitty but for you, too. If you’re feeling down, there are few things that can bring a laugh and a smile like watching your cat dash around like a maniac chasing his Thing On A String toy.

Siouxsie: Regular play will also keep your cat from getting bored. And if your cat wakes you up in the middle of the night, a good bout of pre-bedtime play can make your cat nice and sleepy and help you get a good night’s sleep.

Thomas: One reason we hear a lot more about diabetic cats these days is because there are a lot more obese cats than there used to be.

Dahlia: Another reason is that cats are living longer and getting more veterinary care than they have at any time in the past.

Siouxsie: You don’t need to fear diabetes, Piper’s Mom. Feed your cat a good diet in appropriate amounts, give him plenty of exercise, and take him to the vet for regular checkups, and he should be fine.