If your pet has recently been diagnosed with kidney failure, you are likely confused and frightened. Your pet may be extremely ill or show no outward signs—either way, you may feel guilty for not recognizing they were sick. However, kidney failure can progress slowly and give little to no warning (i.e., chronic kidney disease [CKD]), or appear suddenly (i.e., acute kidney disease). Replace your unnecessary guilt by empowering yourself with education about the kidneys, and what to expect following your pet’s diagnosis. 

What are the kidneys’ functions in pets?

The kidneys are essential for maintaining the body’s internal equilibrium by removing toxins and cellular waste products from the blood. In addition to harmful materials, the kidneys eliminate any excess substances that cannot be stored, to achieve a safe balance of electrolytes, calcium, and phosphorus. The kidneys control blood pH and blood pressure, and produce the necessary hormones for red blood cell production.

When the kidneys fail, they no longer effectively remove waste products, which then accumulate, and a toxic chain reaction affects the body.

Why do kidneys fail in pets?

Kidney failure can have many causes. Acute (i.e., sudden) failure is typically caused by a recent illness or trauma, such as:

  • Toxicity (e.g., foods, antifreeze, or medications)
  • Urinary blockage
  • Bacterial infection
  • Lyme disease
  • Leptospirosis
  • Dehydration
  • Heatstroke

CKD takes longer to progress, making the original cause hard to determine. However, because most CKD cases are diagnosed in senior pets, natural deterioration is a common cause. Other known reasons include concurrent disease (e.g., liver or gallbladder disease, or chronic pancreatitis), and untreated or unresolved acute kidney failure.

What signs do pets in kidney failure experience?

Pets with acute and chronic kidney failure may show similar signs, but a veterinary diagnosis is necessary, because signs can be vague and nonspecific. Early signs may include:

  • Weight loss
  • Dull hair coat
  • Increased thirst
  • Increased urination

As the disease progresses, signs become more apparent, and may include:

  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness 
  • Lethargy
  • Pale gums
  • Foul breath
  • Incoordination (i.e., walking like they are drunk)
  • Mouth ulcers

Should I have noticed my pet’s illness sooner?

While acute kidney failure is typically obvious right away, CKD progresses gradually over months to years, giving the kidneys time to compensate and adapt to their damaged state. Unfortunately, this means that no signs are visible until the kidneys are operating at one-third of their normal ability, and more than 60 percent of both kidneys have been irreparably destroyed.

How is kidney failure typically diagnosed in pets?

Routine blood work can help catch kidney disease in its earliest stages when treatment is most effective—that’s why we recommend annual lab work for senior pets older than 7. If your pet’s blood work suggests kidney failure, our veterinarians will recommend a urinalysis, to see if the kidneys are concentrating urine effectively, and an ultrasound, to visualize the kidney’s internal structures.

How is kidney failure treated in pets?

Treatment for acute and chronic kidney disease is highly individual and can vary greatly between pets. While treatment implies a cure, you must remember that kidney damage—whether acute or chronic—is irreversible. And although acute kidney failure can be resolved in some cases, treatment is not a cure, and won’t stop disease progression in most pets. However, treatment can delay kidney deterioration, minimize clinical signs, and give your pet months to years of extra life. 

In general, most acute and chronic kidney disease treatments are focused on addressing the cause (e.g., toxin ingestion, or concurrent disease or infection), managing clinical signs, and reducing demand on the kidneys. Common treatments include: 

  • Fluid therapy — This may be intravenous during hospitalization, or administered at home subcutaneously (i.e., under the skin).
  • Nutrition — Low protein, phosphorous, and sodium diets reduce the workload on your pet’s kidneys.
  • Medication — Pets may require anti-nausea medications, appetite stimulants, blood pressure medications, phosphate binders, and vitamin supplementation.
  • Increased water intake — Canned kidney diets, dry food soaked in water, and pet water fountains can encourage your pet to drink more, and help combat dehydration.

What’s my pet’s prognosis?

Kidney failure, and it’s outcome, are unique to each pet. Your pet’s veterinarian at Colony Veterinary Hospital will explain your pet’s prognosis based on their current bloodwork, clinical disease signs, age, physical condition, and the presence of additional medical conditions. 

Acute kidney failure can occasionally be reversed with early diagnosis and hospitalization for aggressive treatment, but can also be fatal, or progress to CKD, if the pet survives. Unfortunately, all CKD is irreversible, although pets who tolerate therapeutic management can live comfortably for months to years.

Could I have prevented my pet’s disease?

Kidney disease caused by age or hereditary conditions is not preventable. However, you can safeguard your pet against some common acute kidney failure causes by:

  • Storing harmful chemicals out of reach, and immediately cleaning up any spills
  • Familiarizing yourself with common household pet toxins
  • Keeping toxic houseplants out of reach, especially lilies, which are extremely toxic to cats
  • Restricting your pet’s access to wildlife areas where they may contract leptospirosis

The best way to ensure your pet’s health is to maintain annual or semi-annual wellness visits at Colony Veterinary Hospital, so we can address small changes in your pet’s health before they become significant. If your pet is experiencing changes in thirst, urination, appetite, or energy level, contact us for an appointment.