Pet Health:
Ketones, Ketoacidosis and Diabetic Cats
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Also see
Pet Diabetes Wiki: Ketoacidosis

What are Ketones?

Ketones or ketone bodies (acetone, acetoacetic acid, and beta-hydroxybutyric acid) are waste products of fatty acid breakdown in the body. This is the result of burning fat, rather than glucose, to fuel the body.

The body tries to dispose of excess ketones as quickly as possible when they are present in the blood. The kidneys filter out ketones and excrete them into the urine.

Should you care about ketones?

YES! If they build up, they can lead to very serious energy problems in the body, resulting in diabetic ketoacidosis, a true medical emergency. If the condition is not reversed and other systemic stresses are present, ketones may continue to rise and a condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) may occur. This condition can progress very quickly and cause severe illness. It is potentially fatal even when treated. Recognition of DKA and rapid treatment by your veterinarian can save your cat's life.

Signs of Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA)

  • Drinking excessive amounts of water OR no water
  • Excessive urination
  • Diminished activity
  • Not eating for over 12 hours
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy and depression
  • Weakness
  • Breathing very fast
  • Dehydration
  • Ketone odor on breath (smells like nail-polish remover or fruit)

Causes of Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA)

  • Insulin dependent diabetes mellitus
  • Inadequate insulin dosing or production
  • Infection
  • Concurrent diseas that stresses the animal
  • Estrus
  • Medication noncompliance
  • Lethargy and depression
  • Stress
  • Surgery
  • Idiopathic (unknown causes)

Risk Factors for DKA

  • Any condition that causes an insulin deficiency
  • History of corticosteroid or beta-blocker administration


Laboratory tests performed by your vet are necessary for diagnosis. Depending on how sick your cat is, the testing can be extensive (and expensive). Your veterinarian will determine what tests are necessary. At a minimum, testing is likely to include a number of blood tests and a urine test.


If the cat is bright, alert, and well-hydrated, the cat will not require intensive care. Your cat will require insulin, food, constant access to water, and close monitoring for signs of illness such as vomiting, anorexia, and lethargy.

Treatment of cats who show signs illness require inpatient intensive care. The goal of treatment is to correct dehydration, electrolyte depletion, to reverse the high ketones in the blood and the metabolic acidosis that is present, and to increase the rate of glucose use by insulin-dependent tissues.

Veterinary care for DKA involves intravenous (IV) fluids, usually supplemented with potassium, monitoring by observation and urine and blood tests, and sometimes feeding by a tube. Treatment may involve a hospital stay of five days or more and often costs about US$2000. Without treatment, "sick" animals with DKA will die.

Testing for Ketones

Simple urine tests can detect ketones. This is done by collecting a urine sample and inserting a special dip stick into the urine. Some urine ketone strips detect only ketones while other types test for both glucose and ketone levels. Urine ketone strips will detect only some of the ketone bodies produced by the body, not all of them. Strip storage, handling, and testing procedures are similar to those used for glucose test strips. Strip test results are indicated by presence of color changes, indicating presence of ketones, either quantitatively (giving you a number for the ketone concentration) or by descriptive terms (for example, negative, trace, small, or large). False positives may occur if you are also using certain medications or vitamins, or if the strips have been handled or stored improperly. If you wish to test blood instead of urine for ketones, there is a meter that allows for home testing, the Abbott Precision Xtra meter. Outside of the US, the meter is known by the brand name Precision/Optimum/Xceed. The premise behind blood testing for ketones is the same as that for favoring glucose testing of blood over urine. The Precision Xtra meter is offered by Hock's online pharmacy for US$29.95 in October 2006. The ketone test strips are about US$30 for a box of 50. The Precision Xtra also does blood glucose testing with standard blood glucose test strips made for use with the meter.

When to call the vet

In a diabetic, any urinary ketones above trace or trace urinary ketones plus some of the signs listed above, are cause to call a veterinarian immediately. If your vet doesn't offer after-hour emergency care, be sure to have the number and location of a 24 hour emergency veterinarian.

Last updated 10/10/06
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