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Can Dry Food Cause Diabetes in Cats? Everything You Need to Know!

Emma Stenhouse

As cat owners, we’re always trying to do our best when it comes to our feline friends. One of the most effective ways to help your cat feel and look their best is to consider their diet. You may have heard that feeding dry food can increase the chance that your cat can develop diabetes. But is that true?

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What is Feline Diabetes?

Diabetes mellitus, or sugar diabetes, happens when your cat’s body can no longer make or use insulin correctly. Insulin is normally made in the pancreas and helps control the amount of sugar in your cat’s bloodstream. This sugar, in the form of glucose, is used by cells to create energy.

When your cat’s blood sugar level falls below normal levels, glucose is no longer being sent to the cells. In order to keep creating energy, the cells use fat and protein instead. When glucose levels in the bloodstream go back to normal levels, the cells don’t necessarily switch back to using this instead of the fats and proteins. The glucose then builds up to dangerous levels.

While there are two types of feline diabetes, type II, or non-insulin-dependent, is by far the most common. In this case, the cat’s body either doesn’t produce enough insulin, or it becomes insulin-resistant. This means a far higher level of insulin is necessary in their bloodstream before the cells start processing it properly.

Type I diabetes, which is when the body completely stops producing insulin, is sometimes seen in cats, but it’s very unusual.

cat after eating food from a plate
Image Credit: mik ulyannikov, Shutterstock

How Do Cats Get Diabetes?

The exact reasons that cats develop diabetes aren’t known, but what we do know is that there are a few risk factors that increase the chances of a cat becoming diabetic. Overweight cats are far more likely to develop diabetes. Cats with certain illnesses, including Cushing’s disease, hyperthyroidism, and chronic pancreatitis, are also at higher risk.

It’s thought that some medications, including corticosteroids, can increase the risk of a cat developing diabetes.

There’s also the theory that dry cat food might put cats at risk of developing diabetes.

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Can Dry Food Cause Diabetes?

The honest answer is that’s there’s not yet a clear answer!

As obligate carnivores, cats are naturally designed to eat a meat-based diet. These days, many cat foods, especially dry cat foods, contain many carbohydrates. The digestive system of a cat isn’t designed to process carbohydrates, and they lack a number of different enzymes required to metabolize them. Carbohydrates can cause your cat to become overweight, which is a risk factor for them developing diabetes.

There’s been plenty of research into this question, but different studies have found different risk factors. Let’s take a brief look at some of the most important research.

Study 1: Bennett et al., 2006

This study compared the effects of eating a diet that was moderate in carbohydrates and high in fiber and a diet that was low in both carbohydrates and fiber. Both diets were canned wet food. After 16 weeks, more cats that were fed the low carbohydrate and fiber diet had reverted to being non-insulin-dependent than those fed the diet that was moderate in carbohydrates and high in fiber.

Study 2: McCann et al., 2007

A study of cats in the U.K. found that the highest-risk cats fell into this category:

  • Male
  • Neutered
  • Inactive
  • Weighing over 11 pounds
  • History of corticosteroid treatment

They also found that Burmese cats are at 3.7 times higher risk of developing diabetes mellitus than non-purebred cats.

kitten with cat food
Image Credit: fantom_rd, Shutterstock

Study 3: Slingerland et al., 2009

This study found that physical inactivity and being kept as an indoor cat were higher risk factors for developing diabetes, compared to eating dry food.

Study 4: Öhlund et al., 2016

This Swedish study found that cats of a normal weight that ate a diet of predominately dry food were at a higher risk of developing diabetes than cats that ate a wet food diet.

Increased risks of diabetes for overweight cats were associated with:

  • Being kept indoors
  • Being overweight
  • Being a fast or greedy eater

This study also found that Burmese cats had a higher risk of developing diabetes, as did Norwegian Forest Cats. Breeds with lower risks were the Persian and the Birman.

The researchers found that factors associated with the lowest risk of diabetes included:

  • Living in a rural environment
  • Having access to the outdoors
  • Being slightly underweight
  • Being female
  • Living with a dog
  • Being fed ad-lib

The study found that for overweight cats, the risk of developing obesity could be a more important risk factor than the type of food that a cat eats. For cats of a normal weight, the type of food that they ate did seem to make a difference, as cats of a normal weight that were fed dry food were at higher risk of developing diabetes than cats fed a wet food diet.

After an extensive review of all the available literature, there is not yet a direct cause and effect between a diet that’s high in carbohydrates and the development of diabetes or obesity.

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Conclusion

As the research shows, the link between diabetes and dry cat food isn’t conclusive.

The most important thing to do if you have a diabetic cat is to follow the guidance provided by your veterinarian. There isn’t a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to managing a cat’s diabetes. Switching your cat from dry food to another diet may not be the right thing to do in your cat’s individual case.

That said, a diet that’s recommended for diabetic cats is one that’s high in protein but low in carbohydrates. This can help control your cat’s glycemic response, or the amount that their blood glucose levels change after they’ve eaten. You should ask your vet for advice before following this approach, however.

While dry food may increase the risk of your cat becoming overweight, it doesn’t seem to cause diabetes on its own. Other factors, like obesity and low activity, also have parts to play, as do the breed of your cat and whether they’re male or female.

As with so many things, there isn’t one specific factor that seems to indicate that a cat is likely to develop diabetes. Working in tandem with your vet to keep your cat at an appropriate weight, on a good-quality diet, and as active as possible will help your cat stay as healthy and happy as possible.


Featured Image Credit: catinrocket, Shutterstock

Emma Stenhouse

Emma is a freelance writer, specializing in writing about pets, outdoor pursuits, and the environment. Originally from the UK, she has lived in Costa Rica and New Zealand before moving to a smallholding in Spain with her husband, their 4-year-old daughter, and their dogs, cats, horses, and poultry. When she's not writing, Emma can be found taking her dogs for walks in the rolling fields around their home...and usually, at least some of the cats come along, too! Emma is passionate about rescuing animals and providing them with a new life after being abandoned or abused. As well as their own four rescue dogs, she also fosters dogs for re-homing, providing them with love and training while searching for their forever homes.