A chronic illness diagnosis in your pet is worrisome, especially if you are unsure about the cause of the disease, and how you can best manage your beloved companion’s lifelong condition. Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is common in pets, and affects an estimated 1% to 3% of cats and dogs. Dogs do not develop kidney disease as frequently as cats, but can suffer from decreased kidney function, especially as they age. 

Although CKD is one of the most common causes of mortality in cats, not many pet owners know much about the ins and outs of this serious condition. Let’s clarify kidney disease in pets with a rundown on how the disease occurs, what signs appear, and how you can manage your furry pal’s condition.

What are the kidneys’ functions in pets?

Your pet’s kidneys perform a vast number of vital functions necessary for a healthy body, including:

  • Water conservation
  • Toxin removal 
  • Electrolyte balance
  • Blood pressure regulation
  • Protein conservation
  • Red blood cell production
  • pH balance

Improperly functioning kidneys fail to concentrate urine, leading to an excessive water intake to push out the day’s toxin load. Unbalanced electrolyte levels can cause weakness, mineral deposits, weak bones, and intestinal bleeding, while decreased red blood cell production can lead to anemia. Another kidney function is preventing protein loss, but in CKD, the filtering mechanism that removes toxins and leaves larger molecules behind, becomes damaged and allows proteins to leak through, which can lead to muscle loss. 

How do pets develop kidney disease?

Certain risk factors, such as feline infectious peritonitis, leptospirosis, kidney stones, and hereditary conditions, may make pets more likely to develop kidney disease. CKD is typically caused by struggling kidneys as the pet ages, but can also be caused when the pet is younger by an acute kidney injury, like toxin ingestion, infectious disease, or urethral obstruction. 

Why is detecting early stage kidney disease in pets so difficult?

Pets can compensate for failing kidneys for months or sometimes years, rarely showing illness until the kidneys have lost roughly 75% of their function. Standard blood chemistry tests do not detect kidney dysfunction until a significant portion of the kidneys are lost; however, a fairly new test that enables veterinarians to catch kidney disease in much earlier stages is now available. 

Since kidney disease detection is so difficult until three-quarters of kidney function has been lost, annual or biannual exams with your family veterinarian are crucial. They can guide you on the proper time frame for blood work, blood pressure testing, urinalysis, and other key early kidney disease indicators. 

What are the signs of kidney disease in pets?

Early kidney disease signs can be challenging to pick up on in your pet, but may include:

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

These signs can be attributed to a variety of illnesses, so a thorough exam and diagnostic workup is necessary to determine the cause of your pet’s increased thirst and urination, and to rule out other common issues like urinary tract infections. 

As kidney disease progresses, more severe signs—or acute kidney disease signs—include:  

  • Lack of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Severe weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Hind leg weakness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Increased urination
  • Oral ulcers
  • Pale gums
  • Foul breath

How will I know if my pet has kidney disease?

Since early kidney disease signs in pets are so subtle, routine blood work and screening tests are the best way to determine if your pet has the disease. At your furry pal’s annual or biannual wellness visit, your family veterinarian will likely recommend various diagnostic tests to monitor your pet’s baseline normal values, check for patterns, and seek subtle changes. By catching kidney disease in its earliest stages, your best friend can live a longer, healthier life. 

How can I treat my pet’s kidney disease?

While kidney disease can be successfully managed in some pets for years, some unfortunate pets succumb to this disease much sooner. However, many treatment options can help maintain a good quality of life for your four-legged friend, including:

  • Subcutaneous fluids administered under the skin to maintain adequate hydration
  • Anti-nausea medication
  • Appetite stimulants
  • Kidney health supplements
  • Kidney support prescription diets
  • Increased water intake through canned foods, water fountains, and warm water added to dry kibble
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Electrolyte supplements

By maintaining a close relationship with your family veterinarian—or our talented veterinary internal medicine specialists—your pet’s treatment plan can be adjusted as needed to provide the best possible outcome.  

How long can my pet live with kidney disease?

Pets with kidney disease have a prognosis based on many factors, including their disease stage, progression speed, and how well they tolerate treatments. If your spicy kitty refuses to hold still for subcutaneous fluids, you must ensure they drink enough to maintain adequate hydration. Continuous monitoring and tweaks to your pet’s treatment plan can help extend their survival time from months to years. 

While your family veterinarian can help manage your pet’s CKD, our Pet Emergency Clinic and Referral Center is always available for urgent care, second opinions, or specialized internal medicine care. If your furry pal is drinking or urinating excessively, vomiting, or seems lethargic and uncomfortable, contact us for an appointment for prompt treatment.