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Endocrine System Support & Diabetes Care
About Your Cat's Endocrine System
The feline endocrine system consists of several glands secreting hormones that control the body's metabolism, mineral and fluid balances, digestion, growth, and fertility. These include the thyroid, adrenal, pancreas, testicles, ovaries, and pituitary glands. Imbalance in the hormones secreted by the endocrine system result in diseases. An overactive thyroid gland and diabetes are both in the top 10 conditions that cause cat parents to seek veterinary help. Here's a look at each gland in a little more depth:
The thyroid gland controls the body's metabolism; i.e., the rate at which its cells renew. If it is too active (hyperthyroidism), the cat will lose weight rapidly, be ravenously hungry, vomit and have diarrhea, be hyperactive, and drink & urinate more than usual. Hyperthyroidism can also cause secondary heart problems. It is quite common in very old cats, who may also vocalize more (yowl) as a result of it. If left untreated, it can cause heart and kidney failure. An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can cause the cat to be lethargic, gain weight, and have dry skin that leads to matting and hair loss in the coat. An improper ratio of calcium and phosphorus in the cat's diet can lead to malfunction of the thyroid's supporting parathyroid glands. While rare in cats, some young to middle-aged cats may experience this.
The adrenal glands control how the body metabolizes carbohydrates, fats and proteins. They also regulate heart function, blood pressure, and the body's balance of salt to water. Overactive adrenal glands, also known as Cushing's syndrome, are quite rare in cats. It is marked by excessive drinking & urination, an increased appetite, enlarged abdomen, hair loss, thinning skin with a tendency to tear, and a lethargic disposition. Middle-aged to older cats, and especially females, are more likely to develop it. Also rare in cats are underactive adrenal glands, also known as Addison's disease. Cats suffering from this will become leghargic, lose their appetites, and lose weight.
The pancreas secretes several digestive enzymes and hormones, including insulin. If too little insulin is produced the cat may suffer from diabetes mellitus. While cats of any age may develop diabetes, those older than 10 years, obese cats, and neutered males are more susceptible. Diabetic cats will have excessive thirst and urination. Even if their appetite is good or increased, they will become lethargic and suffer weight loss. As the disease worsens, they will lose their appetite and experience vomiting, muscle weakeness, and dehydration. When diagnosed early, diabetes in cats is more often non-insulin dependent, meaning that the pancreas is still producing insulin, but the body is not able to utilize it. But if left untreated, the disease will progress to the insulin-dependent form. Too much insulin can cause a cat to become hypoglycemic, or have low blood sugar. Hypoglycemic cats will be weak, lethargic, and have a wobbly walk. As the condition worsens, they may go into convulsions or even a coma.
The testicles and ovaries produce sex hormones that control the cat's reproductive system. In a neutered male cat, the testicles will be removed. Spayed females will have their ovaries removed. While the hormones produced by these glands are often supplemented in middle-aged humans once the glands slow down or cease production of them, in cats their absence is considered a good thing. Losing these hormones makes cats less frantic, tamer, and stops unwanted behaviors like roaming, fighting, and urinating outside the litter box to mark territory.
The pituitary gland controls all the above glands in the endocrine system. It also regulates growth and conserves bodily fluids by restricting urine output if the cat is dehydrated. Although uncommon, older male cats may have too much growth hormone (acromegaly) and suffer from an unusually large head and paws, weight gain, enlarged abdomen, thickened skin, a forward-jutting lower jaw, and enlargement of the major organs. As this progresses, the organs may fail. Cats with acromegaly usually also suffer from diabetes mellitus. If the pituitary gland doesn't secrete enough antidiuretic hormone (ADH), most often seen in younger male cats, they will have extreme thirst and urinate vast quantities.
If you suspect that your cat's endocrine system is not working properly, visit your veterinarian to get the blood work done so you'll know for sure. Treating your cat with over-the-counter remedies by guessing at what's wrong without this information could endanger your cat's health. Once you know for sure what's going on, you can make better choices on the best treatment.
Sources: Mark E. Peterson, D.V.M. and John F. Randolf, D.V.M., "Endocrine System and Disorders" on Max's House website; The Merck Veterinary Manual; Lorie Huston, D.V.M., "Diabetes Mellitus in the Cat" on About.com; Susan Lee, "Canine & Feline Endocrinology" on eHow.
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