Four nights ago, my beloved 8-year-old cat struggled to stand up after a nap. When I saw her stumble, I laughed at first, thinking that her back paw was caught in the folds of the blanket we were sharing, but when I grabbed her leg to free her, she let out a startled yelp of pain and collapsed back down onto the couch.
JackJack (also lovingly referred to as “Chonk”) is the Queen of our house. She is the picture of feline stoicism and alpha to our three other cats. The yelp wasn’t just unusual, it was unprecedented.
Something was wrong.
I cleared the space around her feet and watched as she tried to stand again. Her front legs extended correctly, but she struggled to pull her back legs underneath her. She finally succeeded, but when she tried to walk, her legs appeared too weak to support her and she immediately lost her balance, collapsing back down to the couch.
I was sure she was having some fatal medical event like a stroke or maybe she had a brain tumor.
Unsure of what to do and wanting to be prepared for the worst, I Googled “Signs your cat is dying” and “Signs of a stroke in cats”. I also went into “stoic mom mode”, knowing that losing their favorite cat was not going to be easy on my four daughters.
Aside from her back legs not working, she didn’t have any of the symptoms that signaled a life-threatening medical event. She was alert. Her appetite was ravenous as ever. She wasn’t having bowel or bladder “accidents.” She wasn’t moaning in constant pain. Her eyes weren’t droopy.
Her back legs simply didn’t seem to be working right and they were causing her discomfort.
After about an hour of internet research, I confidently, and with much relief, concluded that our favorite kitty was suffering diabetic neuropathy. Her symptoms were oddly specific and on point.
It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that she is 21lbs.
For the uninitiated, a healthy cat is 8–10lbs. JackJack's weight is akin to being a 6'0" human weighing 350lbs with a BMI of 45.
She is morbidly obese.
In the literature, I was able to identify other signs of feline diabetes mellitus she had been exhibiting for probably the past a year or so: excessive hunger and thirst, excessive urination, dandruff, oily coat, lethargy, change in activity level. I had chalked it all up to her being overweight.
Jackjack used to be an outdoor cat until we moved two years ago. She was an active hunter and beloved by the neighborhood for her sweet disposition. She brought us birds and baby bunnies as presents and would come running when we called, scaling a 6-foot concrete wall with enviable speed and agility. Her diet at home was standard dry cat food but she supplemented it well with the small birds and rodents she delighted in capturing.
When we moved into an urban loft in July of 2018, she could no longer go outside and begrudgingly became an indoor cat. She lost access to both her primary form of exercise and an important component of her diet. I felt bad for her but I figured she simply had to acclimate because I wasn’t going to give her away. In our house, pets aren’t something you “get rid of” just because your circumstances change.
That’s when she began really overeating. I figured she was bored and maybe a little depressed. Of course I noticed her weight gain, but I rationalized that I was glad she had something to make her feel good since she was now trapped indoors. I sold myself that it was okay for her to live the Garfield lifestyle — that it was a kind of retirement that she had earned. I wanted her to curl up in her kitty barcalounger, binge watch Netflix, and live a life of leisure.
I was, regrettably, very wrong.
Lucky for her, I learned a thing or two about diabetes over the past several years. Despite being underweight, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in the Fall of 2015.
At the time, no one would have guessed that I was diabetic. At 6'1" and 135lbs, I did not appear to be someone at risk. I was, by all appearances, enviably fit and healthy.
Overeating was not a concern for me, but I did have a problem with what I was eating. I used to joke with my friends — who would ask me my “secret” to being a skinny mother of four — that I was on the “All Carb” diet. My one meal per day consisted of something like a can of Coke and a bowl of mashed potatoes and topped out at about 800 calories max. Another name for that secret was “anorexia.”
When a routine blood test resulted in my first elevated HbA1c, my doctor said it was an anomaly.
He didn’t believe that I could have a 6.3 so he tested it again the next month.
That one came back at 6.6.
He told me to watch what I ate and come back one more time to triple-check: 7.1 and I officially had Type 2 diabetes.
Symptoms were already appearing. I was thirsty and peeing a lot and I would get terrible blisters on my feet that took a long time to heal.
Thankfully, I was cured by the Fall of 2018 after changing my diet to low carb/keto, following which my HbA1c dropped to 4.8. That dietary transition was aided by a man I was dating at the time who knew a lot about diabetes and insulin and I read the latest research that he often sent my way.
Concerned about my health, he regularly pointed out that heart disease is the leading cause of death among Type 2 diabetics. That meant that my elevated blood sugars and hyperinsulinemia were putting me at risk of heart attack, despite my low caloric intake and lean body — and that I was not only risking my own life but risking leaving my four daughters motherless.
And I got better.
Despite reading, by overwhelming consensus, that the first-line treatment for feline diabetes is insulin, my own experience and research told me otherwise. She was not a Type 1 diabetic. She was Type 2. She had acquired her insulin resistance via her lifestyle. For that, and several other less important reasons, insulin injections were not an option. Instead, I was going to eliminate carbs from my cat’s diet. The choices in front of me were either to reverse her diabetes and neuropathy with diet, or she would die.
That same night, after I helped her to the litter box and moved her food and water bowls to a more accessible location, I made a critical choice. Upon learning that dry food is horrible for cats since they are obligate carnivores, I threw out the dry cat food she had been eating her entire life and ordered a large case of wet food that contained only animal-based proteins and fats. I picked up their shared food bowl, from which they had been able to free feed, and switched to serving them two to three scheduled meals per day, individualizing the amount of food based on each of their respective current vs. ideal body weights.
As the sun rose on Day #2 — the morning after her collapse — JackJack struggled to walk and, honestly, it scared me to watch. She didn’t want to stand for very long and jumping — whether it be onto the couch or the table or my daughter’s bed where she loved to sleep — was out of the question.
She had also begun to walk on her hind hocks, which was a sign that diabetic neuropathy was indeed the source of her dysfunction.
She was still alert and did not exhibit any other concerning symptoms so I decided to dote on her, keep her close, make the changes and wait it out.
Today is the end of Day #5. As I’m typing this, I just watched her jump up from a laying down position on the wood floor and scurry out of the way as our Roomba, Obie, surprised her from behind. She could not have done that four days ago. Four days ago, her back legs were too weak. Her progress is undeniable.
Earlier today, she jumped onto my daughter’s bed to take a nap with her — something she has not done since the collapse, either. She also jumped onto a table, by way of a mid-height chair. She didn’t used to need to use the intermediary height of the seat to get to the table, but two small, successful jumps still represent a solid step forward since her low point.
On top of the improvement in her legs, the inflammation in her body and her GI system are all but gone and, in retrospect, I’m disturbed at just how much of it there was. She is no longer puffy and bloated. Her coat is shinier. She has fewer dandruff flakes, and she spent several hours today laying out on the terrace, grooming herself — yet another thing she has lacked the ability to do for quite some time.
Every improvement that I am now watching in real-time goes against all veterinarian advice. I had planned on writing this article when I began to notice improvement, but I didn’t expect to write it less than a week into initiating the changes. Everything I read recommended insulin — that my cat wouldn’t recover from diabetes without daily injections. I simply wasn’t going to do it because I don’t believe that it is a legitimate path to remission that doesn’t leave her dependent on blood draws and injections and stressful medical visits. My body healed by changing my lifestyle. I believed that hers could as well.
So far, I’m pleased with the experiment.
It is only Day #5 and I am not declaring victory just yet. However, my giant, obese cat has already lost 2lbs (probably most of it water weight), is moving well and seems to be feeling better than she did even before her neuropathy kicked in. Her happy eyes are back.
The insulin-promoters claim that with full compliance, lots of blood tests and vet visits, and adherence to strict medical protocol, her neuropathy could reverse in 6–12 months. All I’ve done so far is reject the standard insulin protocol and, instead, cut out carbs and restrict her calories — and I’ve seen improvement in 5 days.
I’m going to stick with my plan.
And not just for my cats. My kitty’s diabetic neuropathy was a wake-up call for me. None of my four daughters are overweight, and despite eating more whole food than they used to, the content of those choices is still fairly carb heavy. Watching the improvement in JackJack’s health after eliminating carbs from her diet has convinced me that I need to make further changes in what food I bring into my house.
Update 3 May 2020 (five months later) — JackJack is thriving. She is now 15.3 lbs and an incredibly active, happy cat with no signs of the diabetic neuropathy that triggered her health crisis.
Also, our other overweight cat, Buffy, who was 16lbs when I changed their diets is now 12lbs, within the normal/healthy weight range for a cat.
Our other two cats have maintained their weights and are more active and healthy, as well.