Kevin recently survived a major health scare. Photo by Copperhead Photography.

Researchers piece together feline diabetes puzzle

Kevin the cat has faced a roller-coaster of health problems during his five years of life.

By Jeanette Neufeld

First, dental surgery. Next came pancreatitis, followed by a diabetes diagnosis. Kevin’s most recent health scare led to a late-night emergency visit to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM)’s Veterinary Medical Centre (VMC).

Kevin was with a cat sitter when he stopped eating and eventually became unresponsive. When his owners heard about his worsening state, they flew home and rushed their cat to the VMC at 2:30 a.m.

Kevin was experiencing a serious condition called diabetic ketoacidosis. High ketone levels in the blood can make cats feel like not eating, and they can get weak and experience vomiting or diarrhea. Cats eventually can go into a diabetic “coma” and lose consciousness before death. Treatment is essential to save the patient.

The VMC’s clinical team were able to stabilize Kevin’s condition by treating him with intravenous fluids, potassium and insulin. Diabetic cats that experience a decrease in appetite should be assessed by their veterinarian as soon as possible.

While veterinarians can diagnose and treat diabetes in cats, WCVM researchers are also exploring physiological processes that occur in affected cats to better understand and manage the disease. The research work is led by Dr. Melissa Meachem, an assistant professor in the WCVM's Department of Veterinary Pathology.

During the past few years, Meachem and her former graduate student, Dr. Peter Toh, investigated how a protein called nesfatin-1 presents in lean, overweight and diabetic cats.

“We’re always looking to improve management in animals,” says Toh, who conducted the research as the focus of his Master of Science program in veterinary pathology. “This is sort of the first step … is there something there, are those connections present in these cats, and can we use that to improve management of diabetes?”

Toh collected tissue samples from the cats, searching for nesfatin-1 within their bloodstream. The novel protein is the focus of a broad range of research in humans and animals. In humans, elevated nesfatin-1 levels in the body are linked to insulin resistance in obese and diabetic people. Nesfatin-1 levels decrease significantly in people whose type 2 diabetes is in remission.

The WCVM researchers’ work explored whether a similar pattern of nesfatin-1 response occurred in cats. Owners participating in the WCVM study monitored their cats’ blood glucose levels at home while researchers treated the pets’ diabetes for a month. WCVM researchers also collected blood samples from these cats to monitor changes in nesfatin-1 levels. Study results showed that when treated, nesfatin-1 levels in diabetic cats decreased.

After graduating in 2021, Toh returned to practise in his home country of Australia — but Meachem is continuing the next phase of this research. She’s part of a project supported by the WCVM’s Companion Animal Health Fund (CAHF), developing species-specific tests for measuring nesfatin-1 in tissues and bodily fluids of cats and dogs.

As for Kevin, he went home after spending four days at the VMC and continues to delight his family with his outgoing personality and wild behaviour. His owners control his diabetes with a special diet, blood glucose monitoring and twice-daily insulin doses. He rewards them by destroying their phone and laptop charging cables.

Kevin has cost his family thousands of dollars — and they love him dearly.