If your cat has recently been diagnosed with diabetes, you’ll know that she finds it hard to regulate her blood sugar levels, either because her pancreas doesn’t produce insulin or she doesn’t respond to her body’s insulin. Many diabetic cats are treated by giving regular injections of insulin. However, it’s possible to give too much insulin by accident, particularly while trying to determine the right dosage for your pet. This can cause her blood sugar to drop too low and become hypoglycaemic. (The opposite condition, hyperglycaemia happens when her blood sugar rises too high and has different effects and treatment.) If your cat suffers a bout of hypoglycaemia, recognising it and acting quickly are essential to keeping your cat healthy. Here’s how:
Getting treatment right
Hypoglycaemia, or low blood sugar, is most often due to an overdose of insulin. It’s a good idea to measure a pet’s sugar levels before giving insulin, as this will help ensure that the dosage is right and reduce the likelihood of hypoglycaemia. Your vet will show you how to do this at home, using a glucometer. If there’s more than one person in your household who is trained to give insulin, it’s important to communicate clearly about whose turn it is. That way you can avoid giving a double dose by accident.
Spotting the symptoms
Every cat is different, but these four signs could help you recognise when your cat’s blood sugar is too low.
1. Changes to eating habits
Hypoglycaemia can go either way when it comes to appetite. Sometimes a cat will feel so dizzy and weak that she is unable to eat. In other instances, low blood sugar drives cravings for extra food. Keep an eye on your cat’s enthusiasm for her food and be alert to any changes.
2. Bumbling behaviour
In a hypoglycaemic state, you may notice that your cat can’t do normal, basic behaviours, such as jumping onto furniture or negotiating a cat flap. This is because your pet needs to maintain her blood sugar level in order for her muscles to function. If that ‘fuel’ dips, it can result in blurred vision, disorientation and confusion.
3. Weakness and lethargy
All cats sleep a lot, but if your cat’s normal behaviour changes then it could be cause for concern. The lack of fuel to the muscles will lead to weakness and a reluctance to move. Other signs to watch out for include drowsiness, decreased interest in favourite toys or sudden sounds, and an unusual tendency to snap or lash out.
4. Jerking or twitching
In extreme cases of hypoglycaemia, the lack of fuel to the brain will result in a loss of consciousness. Before this happens, you might notice all-over body jerking or twitching movements. Losing consciousness is an emergency, so trust your gut and give your vet a call as soon as you sense something might be wrong.
It can be tricky to recognise when your cat is hypoglycaemic, since the symptoms could be different each time. However, as a diabetic cat owner you’ll be aware of the potential for hypoglycaemia and better equipped to respond.
The initial symptoms can be treated by giving your cat sugar in any form to raise her blood sugar level beyond critical. For example, you could try rubbing honey onto her gums. It’s also worth trying to keep calm, as over-stimulating or stressing your cat can result in an increased energy demand, making things worse.
If you haven’t experienced a hypoglycaemic episode before, it can be helpful to contact your vet as soon as it happens – both for emergency advice as well as longer term solutions. Even if you have managed an attack safely before, it’s still best to take a glucometer reading. This will help to check that your cat’s symptoms were caused by hypoglycaemia, rather than another undiagnosed disorder such as heart disease (which can often accompany diabetes).
Caring for a diabetic cat: an owner’s experience
One of Brian’s feline patients, Bagpuss, was first diagnosed with diabetes more than 10 years ago. Here’s how owner Sheena Fisher managed the condition:
‘Bagpuss turned up in our garden around 2005, and soon made herself at home,’ Sheena says. ‘Then, two years later, she went missing for a couple of days. We frantically searched for her, and she eventually staggered back home looking very ill. We rushed her to the vets, where they diagnosed her with diabetes. The diagnosis certainly took us by surprise and initially sounded a bit daunting, but there was no other option; we’d do whatever was needed to care for her.
‘While Bagpuss did have some hypoglycaemic attacks, we were fortunate that they were rare and we were in the house at the time, meaning we could recognise the symptoms and act immediately. She would quite quickly show signs of lethargy, weakness and slight disorientation, so my first action was always to carry her to her food bowl. She’d usually eat a big helping of food, and then I’d guide her to her bed where she’d stay quietly until she recovered.’
‘I also kept a jar of runny honey available at all times, so if I ever felt she needed extra help to recover, I could put a little of it around her gums with my fingers. Generally speaking, she recovered well from eating her food and was back walking around and acting normally within about fifteen to twenty minutes.’
‘If your cat has just been diagnosed with diabetes, I’d really recommend making the effort to understand the condition as much as you can, particularly the relationship between the specified amount of food and the insulin dose recommended by your vet – along with buying and learning how to use a blood glucose testing meter (glucometer). This can become especially important if your cat changes their eating habits, as you may need to adjust their insulin dose to prevent hypoglycaemia or its opposite, hyperglycaemia. I‘d also always recommend asking your vet for advice – I’m sure they’ll be happy to offer tips or even training to help you cope with the condition.’