You know the kidneys are vital to your pet’s health, but what does a kidney failure diagnosis really mean for your furry pal? Is this a condition that will rapidly cause a decreased quality of life, or one that can be managed for years? Read on to learn all the ins and outs of kidney failure in pets.

What are the functions of my pet’s kidneys?

The kidneys are responsible for many body functions, and a minor upset in the kidneys can cause substantial illness. Some of the kidneys’ main duties include: 

  • Toxin removal — The kidneys filter out wastes, such as byproducts from food, old cells, toxins, poisons, and medications, from the bloodstream, but damaged or diseased kidneys are no longer efficient at this task, and will allow toxins to accumulate, and make your pet seriously ill. 
  • Water conservation — The kidneys regulate the amount of water eliminated from the body through a series of checks and balances. If your pet is dehydrated, the kidneys work to conserve water, removing metabolic waste with as little water as possible. If your pet is drinking excessively, the kidneys will flush out that extra water to prevent the blood from becoming too dilute. Pets with poor kidney function cannot properly concentrate urine, so they must drink extra water to eliminate waste products. 
  • Red blood cell production — Because they manufacture erythropoietin, a hormone that signals the bone marrow to create more red blood cells, the kidneys are responsible for preventing anemia.
  • Blood pressure regulation — The kidneys help regulate blood pressure by saving or eliminating sodium, based on how much sodium the pet eats.
  • Electrolyte balance — The kidneys work to keep electrolyte levels in check, to aid in proper body function.

The kidneys are a critical part of many of your pet’s bodily functions, and if something is awry with these vital organs, obvious signs will develop.

How does kidney failure develop in pets?

Kidney failure can develop for a variety of reasons, both congenital and induced. Congenital issues that lead to kidney malformation can cause kidney failure from birth. Chronic bacterial infections (i.e., pyelonephritis) can damage the kidneys enough to cause failure, while high blood pressure and immune system diseases are other culprits. Acute kidney failure can be the result of a toxin exposure like antifreeze, or a viral or bacterial infection, such as leptospirosis. 

What’s the difference between acute and chronic kidney failure in pets?

Kidney failure is typically classified as acute or chronic, with various stages that indicate the disease’s severity. Acute kidney failure develops from a sudden injury that causes subpar renal function. Common causes include toxins, infection, urinary tract obstruction, sepsis, cancer, decreased blood flow, and heatstroke. Early acute kidney failure signs generally include excessive thirst and urination, and can progress to inappetence, lethargy, and vomiting. Eventually, your pet may stop urinating completely, although acute kidney failure can be reversible with prompt treatment. 

Pets with chronic kidney failure gradually lose kidney function. Older pets, particularly cats, are most likely to develop chronic kidney failure, but signs may not appear until more than half the kidney function is lost. Signs may include excessive thirst and urination, lethargy, decreased appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and weight loss. Chronic kidney failure is a lifelong condition, but can be successfully managed for years.

How is kidney failure in pets managed?

Whether your pet has developed acute or chronic kidney failure, initial treatment or stabilization is the same. Ongoing care and management is essential for keeping the kidneys functioning as well as possible in chronic kidney failure, but all treatment is aimed at supporting these important organs, which may include:

  • Underlying cause treatment — To begin with, the underlying cause must be addressed. For example, if your pet’s acute kidney failure was caused by a leptospirosis infection, antibiotics will be administered. 
  • Hydration — While the instigating cause is treated, your pet’s hydration will be maintained through intravenous or subcutaneous fluid administration. Since kidney failure can cause excessive urination, vomiting, diarrhea, and a decreased appetite, proper hydration is exceptionally important. If your pet is in chronic kidney failure, you may need to administer subcutaneous fluids at home, to help maintain their hydration. 
  • Nutrition — Additionally, pets in kidney failure need proper nutrition. Nausea and vomiting can cause a pet’s appetite to plummet, but they must receive nutrition in some form. Affected pets may need a feeding tube placed until their nausea is under control, and then they may remain on a phosphorus-sparing prescription diet once they are eating on their own. To encourage your pet in kidney failure to eat, offer a variety of foods, especially high-fat, energy-dense foods. You can also increase their water intake by moistening dry food, and offering canned food.
  • Nausea — As toxins and waste products accumulate in the bloodstream, your pet will feel nauseous. Adequate hydration will help flush out these metabolic wastes, but your pet may also require anti-emetic and appetite stimulant medications, to settle their stomach and perk up their appetite. 

With dedicated care, your four-legged friend in chronic kidney failure can live a comfortable, happy life for many months—or years—after their initial diagnosis. 

If you notice possible kidney failure signs in your pet—excessive thirst and urination, vomiting, diarrhea, inappetence—contact our Mill Creek Animal Hospital team for an appointment, to determine the cause.