Kidney Disease in Cats: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Kidney disease is one of the most common diseases that affect cats and is the leading cause of death in older cats. News of a kidney disease diagnosis can be alarming to cat parents, and rightly so. The good news is that if caught early enough, kidney disease in your cat can be managed with proper treatment and nutrition, allowing your cat to live a long and happy life. Here is everything you need to know about kidney disease in cats.

Cat lies on table next to The Hobbit.

What is kidney disease?

Kidney disease, also called renal failure, is the loss of any kidney function. The kidneys are an essential organ in the body, and if a kidney is not working properly, serious health issues occur. The kidney is critical to filter toxins and waste into urine which then leaves the body. If your cat’s kidney is diseased, she may experience an increase in wastes and toxins within her blood. Kidneys are also responsible for regulating electrolytes, water balance, regulating mineral levels, and promoting red blood cells in the bone marrow. 

When the kidney stops working effectively, blood flow to the kidneys increases in the body in an attempt to speed up filtration. The result is high blood pressure and anemia, and eventually, death.

There are two different kinds of kidney disease in cats:

Acute kidney disease

Acute or short-term kidney disease happens suddenly due to toxicity, trauma, or another condition that results in kidney failure. The disease leads to the accumulation of waste and toxins in the bloodstream, imbalance of electrolytes and the blood’s acid-base balance, and dehydration. This type of kidney disease is more often seen in young cats but can also occur in older kitties. If found early and treated aggressively, acute kidney disease is potentially reversible.

The causes of acute kidney disease include the following:

Chronic kidney disease 

Chronic (slow or long-term) kidney disease is the gradual loss of kidney function, specifically when the functional nephrons within the kidney die. In essence, your cat’s kidneys stop performing as they should, a common occurrence when organs age, but may also be caused by a buildup of toxins, infectious diseases, a poor diet, or birth defects.

Because cats are notorious for not showing outward signs of illness and discomfort, especially with kidney disease, it is easy for cat parents to miss any early signs of this condition. 

What are the symptoms of kidney disease?

Acute and chronic kidney disease presents subtle symptoms in the first stage of the illness. Here are the signs to look for:

  • An increase in thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Dehydration
  • Weight loss
  • Drooling
  • Loss of appetite
  • Breath that smells strongly of ammonia
  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • A dull, unkempt coat
  • Wasted muscle
  • Hunching over the water bowl
  • Thinning and loss of fur
  • Vomiting
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Diarrhea

One of the most challenging aspects of diagnosing kidney disease in cats is that some cats don’t exhibit any symptoms. Their diagnosis is made strictly through routine veterinary examinations and bloodwork.

Cat drinks from a glass of water.

How is kidney disease diagnosed and treated?

A cat is diagnosed with kidney disease based on a veterinary exam, clinical signs, medical history, and the results of blood and urine tests. Your vet may also order additional diagnostic tests, such as fine needle aspirations or surgical biopsy of the kidneys, abdominal ultrasounds and radiographs, and dye studies radiographic contrast. 

Although there is no cure for kidney disease, it is a condition that, if caught early enough, can be treated and managed. The disease will progress over time, but you can make sure that your cat enjoys a full and long life before that occurs. Here are the steps you can take to manage your cat’s kidney disease.

Increase your cat’s water intake

Cats with kidney disease risk dehydration, so the goal of increasing a cat’s water intake can assist you in managing this condition. Consider feeding your cat wet food or replace your cat’s water bowl with a water fountain, as the running water encourages cats to drink more frequently. Try giving your cat flavored water, as some kitties enjoy tuna juice, low sodium chicken or beef broth. 

Change your cat’s diet

Once your cat is diagnosed with kidney disease, your veterinarian will likely recommend changing your kitty’s diet. Often, cats with kidney disease are put on special prescription diets. Choosing a better type of food is not enough. In many cat foods, the mineral phosphorus is naturally found in protein-rich meats and fish. 

Unfortunately, phosphorus levels must be kept in check for cats with kidney disease. Phosphorus puts extra pressure on impaired kidneys, and if it can’t be efficiently excreted through the urine, it builds up in the body. Your veterinarian will be able to find the right prescription diet to meet your cat’s health needs.

Opt for medication

Kidney disease causes many side effects and, depending on a cat’s case, a veterinarian may advise cat parents to put their cat on medication. These medications raise potassium levels, lower blood pressure, treat stomach ulcers and anemia, promote better kidney function, and reduce vomiting. Other drugs can slow down the progress of renal failure. A veterinarian will assess a cat with renal failure through examinations and tests to determine the best kind of medications for her. 

Consider alternative therapies or surgery

Recent medical advancements have led to further options to manage a cat’s kidney disease. Hormone therapy is now a viable option. Healthy kidneys help to make erythropoietin, a hormone that starts the process of red blood cell production. Once the kidneys begin to malfunction, that cell production drops. If the red blood cell count drops too low, a cat will develop anemia. Because red blood cells carry oxygen around the body, a cat with a low cell count will become fatigued and exhausted. Hormone therapy can help a cat with anemia by encouraging a cat to eat and drink more and improve her quality of life.

Surgery is sometimes an option for a cat with renal failure. Studies have shown that renal replacement surgery has been highly successful, with roughly 90% of cats surviving the procedure. Nearly 70% are still alive one year later. Speak with your veterinarian about whether a kidney transplant is suitable for your cat.

Cat finishes drinking from a bowl

How can you prevent kidney disease in your cat?

If your cat doesn’t have kidney disease right now, what can you do to prevent and protect her from this illness? There are many steps you can take to give your cat a fighting chance against developing this disease, such as:

  • feed your cat a natural, moisture-rich wet food;
  • keep your cat’s litter box in a spot that is easy for your cat to reach; clean it regularly to encourage her to use it;
  • keep your pet at a healthy weight;
  • encourage your cat to drink plenty of liquids;
  • take your cat to see the veterinarian at least twice a year, so a veterinarian can diagnose it before it progresses. Early detection will save your cat’s life.

Preventative measures can help your cat avoid this disease or help you and your vet recognize the condition early enough to manage it.

Pet insurance can help cover the costs of kidney disease.

A cat with kidney disease can quickly become a costly family member. Between exams, tests, therapies, medications, and potential surgeries, the cost of treating your cat can skyrocket. However, if you purchase a pet insurance policy for your cat early on, well before any sign of the disease appears, that policy will help cover much of those costs. 

Don’t have a pet insurance policy for your cat? No worries. You can get a free quote for your furkid, and we’ll provide the best policy options that fit your needs and your budget. Pet insurance can help save your cat’s life, so don’t wait. Get a policy for your cat and help protect her now and in the future.

References:

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  2. Newport Harbor Animal Hospital. (2021). Acute Kidney Failure in Cats. Retrieved from https://www.newportharborvets.com/services/cats/blog/kidney-failure-chronic-in-cats
  3. International Cat Care. (2018). Antifreeze poisoning. Retrieved from   https://icatcare.org/advice/antifreeze-poisoning/
  4. Dhar, M. (2013). Which Plants Can Poison Cats and Dogs? Retrieved from  https://www.livescience.com/39253-toxic-plants-poison-cats-dogs.html
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  8. All About Cats. (2020). Best Cat Food for Kidney Disease (low Phosphorus). Retrieved from https://allaboutcats.com/best-cat-food-for-kidney-disease
  9. O’Brien, C. (2020). Stage 1 Kidney Disease in Cats. Retrieved from https://www.hillspet.com/cat-care/healthcare/stage-1-kidney-disease-in-cats
  10. Sanderson, S. (2005). Use of Erythropoietin and Calcitriol for Chronic Renal Failure in Dogs and Cats. Retrieved from https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?meta=Generic&pId=11196&id=3854220
  11. American Animal Hospital Association. (2021). Is a kidney transplant right for my pet? Retrieved from https://www.aaha.org/your-pet/pet-owner-education/ask-aaha/is-a-kidney-transplant-right-for-my-cat/