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Kidney disease in cats and dogs

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Kidney disease in your pet can be a serious condition. Your pet's kidneys are responsible for cleansing the blood and maintaining proper levels of water and salt within the body. Blood enters the animal's kidneys through renal arteries that branch down into balls of tiny capillaries called glomeruli, which filter waste products from the blood. The fluid then passes through a series of connected tubules that reabsorb the amount of water and salt that the body needs. The remaining fluid is urine, which then passes from the kidneys to the bladder via tubes called ureters.

Chronic renal disease usually develops gradually over time as your pet ages, but it can also develop secondary to other conditions, such as diabetes or cancer. When the kidneys become less efficient at removing waste products, they try to keep up by increasing the amount of urine they produce. This means that the urine will become more dilute, and that your pet will drink more water and urinate more often. This condition is termed renal insufficiency or, when more advanced, renal failure.

Renal disease can also develop rapidly in pets of any age in certain circumstances. Poisons such as antifreeze and certain drugs can damage your pet's kidneys suddenly, resulting in acute renal failure. Sometimes, stones can form in the kidney or ureter, causing urine to back up and damage the delicate glomeruli. Bacterial infections within the kidneys can also damage this delicate tissue, leading to renal failure.

Early signs of renal insufficiency include increased thirst and urination, as the system increases the amount of urine flow. As renal failure develops, waste products build up in the blood, causing a loss of appetite, vomiting, and generally ill health. Straining to urinate is usually a sign of bladder problems, not kidney disease.

Your veterinarian can diagnose kidney disease using a combination of blood and urine tests. Your vet may also recommend an x-ray or ultrasound to look for stones, cancer, or other kidney problems. If your pet has kidney insufficiency or failure, it will likely need treatment with fluids and medications that can increase the flow of urine. Your vet may also prescribe a special protein-restricted diet so that the kidneys do not have to work as hard and to limit the buildup of waste products in the blood. You should also make certain that your pet always has access to plenty of fresh drinking water.

Q&A

How do my pet's kidneys work?

Balls of tiny capillaries called glomeruli filter waste products from the blood, then the waste fluid passes through a series of tubules that reabsorb water and salt that is needed by the body.  The remaining fluid (called urine) passes from the kidneys to the bladder via tubes called ureters.


What causes kidney disease in pets?

Chronic renal disease often develops gradually as the kidneys become less efficient with age, but it can also develop secondary to other diseases (eg, cancer or diabetes).  Kidney disease can also develop rapidly because of poisons, toxins, or infections.


What is the difference between renal insufficiency and renal failure?

Renal insufficiency is when the amount of urine increases to make up for decreased efficiency at removing waste products.  Renal failure is a severe form or renal insufficiency that is associated with other signs of illness.


How is kidney disease in pets diagnosed?

Your veterinarian can diagnose kidney disease using a combination of blood and urine tests. 


How is kidney disease in pets treated?

Kidney disease is treated with fluids and medications that increase the flow of urine.  Your vet may also prescribe a special protein-restricted diet so that the kidneys do not have to work as hard at eliminating waste products from the blood. 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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