Re­port: Fe­line di­a­besity

A fat cat is not a happy cat.

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S tijn Niessen, who heads Bri­tain’s first clinic ded­i­cated to study­ing fe­line di­a­betes, says, “Cats were used to hav­ing to hunt. Not ev­ery hunt was suc­cess­ful. Now that they get handed a plate of juicy Sheba, they don’t need to move a paw – they gob­ble it up and lie on the couch.”

Worse, many are house cats, un­able to have the out­door es­capades that keep less-cos­set­ted pets fit.

“If you speak to a vet who has been in the pro­fes­sion for a while, they would say they didn’t see fat cats be­fore. Now 50 to 60 per cent are over­weight at least,” Dr Niessen says. “It is alarm­ing, but very sim­i­lar to hu­man lev­els.”

Like over­weight people, cats have also been de­vel­op­ing di­a­betes. Now, at the Royal Vet­eri­nary Col­lege’s Queen Mother Hospi­tal, a re­search pro­gramme aimed at com­bat­ing cat di­a­betes has be­gun, with the hope that any­thing Dr Niessen’s team dis­cov­ers might also help hu­mans.

“Di­a­betes is an over­pow­er­ing dis­ease that is go­ing to have an im­pact on the world,” he says. “What amazes me is that we have these crea­tures walk­ing about in our kitchens and liv­ing rooms who suf­fer from the same dis­ease we suf­fer from. We sort of ig­nore that as a sci­en­tific com­mu­nity.”

This is sur­pris­ing given that the only rea­son we have the in­sulin treat­ment is be­cause of re­search in dogs. Dr Niessen be­lieves that us­ing cats to test treat­ments for type 2 di­a­betes could also yield div­i­dends.

“In coun­tries like the UK, health care is state funded and money is, rel­a­tively speak­ing, un­lim­ited. If you are di­ag­nosed, you can see an oph­thal­mol­o­gist, a psy­chol­o­gist, a di­a­betic nurse...

“But di­a­betes is also a pan­demic in the de­vel­op­ing world, where they will never be able to af­ford that. There is a par­al­lel in vet­eri­nary medicine. Here we have to be cheaper, sim­pler and more orig­i­nal. We can’t have so­lu­tions like you do with hu­mans, where you might need to in­ject five times a day.”

Dr Niessen’s pro­gramme is still look­ing for vol­un­teers, but has achieved im­pres­sive early re­sults test­ing a dif­fer­ent form of in­sulin on one of its first over­weight sub­jects, Ge­orgie. Her dose has al­ready been re­duced, but if the treat­ment is go­ing to be suc­cess­ful, it must be ac­com­pa­nied by weight loss. This is the real chal­lenge, Dr Niessen

‘Obe­sity is some­thing some own­ers find funny, but the qual­ity of life of a fat cat is a lot lower’

be­lieves. “Obe­sity is some­thing some own­ers find funny, but it is a real wel­fare is­sue too. The qual­ity of life of a fat cat is a lot lower.

“The prob­lem is that cat food com­pa­nies re­in­force the mes­sage that feed­ing is lov­ing. So when we tell own­ers to stop, they feel they are deny­ing that mo­ment of love to their cat.”

Dr Niessen hopes to find a cure for cat di­a­betes that will help hu­mans too

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