Cheering for an animal’s organs makes up one of my many badges of geekdom.
In February I found out that Lizzy, one of my 10-year-old cats, had diabetes. Granted, I’d been getting the “fat cat lecture” from vets for almost five years. My black bundle of meows, attitude, klutziness, and a bottomless stomach was overweight. But her brother was normal weight, and I couldn’t figure out how to keep her from being the little glutton that she was (and is).
Lots of cats get diabetes, and I’m both a trained scientist and the daughter of a nurse. So I’ve been surrounded by big medical terms in some form for my entire life. What I really hate are needles (I never considered medical school for that very reason). Logically I knew this was a manageable disease– I needed to monitor her glucose and give her insulin shots. Realistically, this was a living creature who squirms, and she was depending on me to somehow get that insulin inside her.
The vet also held out a carrot of hope– that a percentage of cats reasonable percentage of cats recover. So, if we were careful– kept her glucose under control, and changed her diet– that she might just snap out of it. What? Snap out of diabetes? It seemed too good to be true.
So, in addition to following the vet’s orders to the letter, I started looking up research papers about cat diabetes in my spare time. Cat diabetes isn’t very different from human diabetes in most ways. Insulin helps the body process carbohydrates and is made by special cells in the pancreas called beta cells. In diabetes, the body loses the ability to process carbs, either because there’s not enough insulin produced, or because the body becomes insensitive to it. The thing that’s different about diabetes in cats compared to humans or dogs: some diabetic cats can get off of insulin after they’re on it. Somehow those beta cells must either learn how to switch back on or the body resensitizes to insulin (maybe more of the second than the first? much of cat diabetes tends to be type II). Diabetic humans and dogs can expect to need insulin injections for life.
Lizzy appears to be among the third or so who snap out of it. We’re grateful, but I’m still curious about what makes the cat pancreas (and body) more resilient. What do her beta cells have that mine don’t?