Every cat owner needs to know about kidney disease and how it can impact their feline friend.
Kidney disease, especially chronic kidney disease (CKD), is one of the most common health problems of senior and geriatric cats, and its occurrence is increasing.1 Veterinarians generally accept that an estimated one in three cats1 is likely to develop kidney disease during their lifetime. And as cats age, the likelihood of CKD increases. In a recent study, more than 60 percent of senior cats (10 years of age and older) and about 80 percent of geriatric cats (15 to 20 years old) were diagnosed with CKD.2 Early detection is important, so you want to be aware of and watch for possible warning signals.
What is kidney disease?
Kidney disease, which is sometimes called kidney failure, occurs when your cat’s kidneys stop working as well as they should. Normally, healthy kidneys are responsible for:
- Filtering and removing waste products from the blood to be eliminated in urine
- Helping to maintain the body’s water balance
- Regulating electrolytes (for example, sodium, potassium and phosphorus) that are important to many normal body functions
- Controlling normal blood pressure
- Producing certain hormones, including the hormones responsible for stimulating red blood cell production and regulating blood pressure (erythropoietin and renin, respectively)
- Maintaining the acid-base balance of the body
- Concentrating urine by returning water to the body, thus preventing dehydration.
Kidney disease can result when something interferes with the kidneys’ abilities to perform these vital tasks. It usually falls into one of two groups:
- Acute kidney injury, which is a sudden drop in kidney function
- Chronic kidney disease, which is a slow, gradual decrease in kidney function over time.
In some cases of acute kidney injury, early recognition and aggressive treatment can reverse kidney damage. But in CKD, once kidney damage has occurred, it’s usually permanent. The kidneys aren’t able to filter blood normally, which leads to a buildup of waste and toxins that, in turn, cause your cat to feel sick.
CKD can’t be cured, but it can be managed so that many cats have a good quality of life, often for years.
What causes kidney disease in cats?
Cats can develop kidney disease for a variety of reasons, including kidney stones, infection, poisons, abnormal genetics, cancer and others. Unfortunately, in most cases, the underlying cause is unknown.
Some of the kidneys’ filtration units (called nephrons) also lose function as part of normal aging. But in cats with CKD, a greater number of nephrons fail to work properly, which leads to kidney disease signs.
Unfortunately, by the time signs of CKD are noticed, approximately 66 percent of kidney function has been lost.3 That’s why routine screening and veterinary examinations — preferably twice a year — are so important for cats that are 7 years of age and older.
What are the signs of kidney disease?
Chronic kidney disease in its early stages is extremely tough to spot because many cats show no outward signs. The first signals — weight loss, peeing more often and drinking more water — are also easy to miss because they occur so gradually.
If you notice any changes in your cat’s weight, drinking or litter box habits, you’ll want to let your veterinarian know as soon as possible.
What is the treatment for chronic kidney disease?
If your kitty has been diagnosed with CKD, there’s no need to panic; you and your veterinarian can work together to manage your cat’s condition. The reality is that many cats do well for years after being diagnosed with CKD.
Your veterinarian will create a treatment plan specifically for your cat that’s based on:
- Current signs and symptoms
- Stage of CKD (how severe the disease is at the time of diagnosis)
- Other concurrent health issues (for example, high blood pressure).
The goal will be to improve your cat’s symptoms and quality of life, extend life expectancy and slow disease progression.
Assuming your cat doesn’t need to be hospitalized at diagnosis to correct dehydration or other conditions, out-patient management of CKD often includes:
- Providing access to plenty of fresh water and encouraging your cat to drink
- Feeding a high-quality, kidney-friendly cat food — including some canned food, if your kitty will eat it
- Giving extra fluids under the skin (subcutaneous fluids) when your cat is not drinking enough water, which can be done at home or at the veterinary clinic
- Treating high blood pressure with medication, if needed
- Administering medication to restrict phosphorus absorption and lower blood phosphorus levels, if necessary
- Monitoring closely and adjusting the treatment plan as needed as your kitty’s health changes.
Because CKD is a common disease that often sneaks up on veterinarians and cat owners — even when they’re looking for it — routine screening of all mature and older cats can help identify cats in the early stages of the disease. If you have any questions about your cat’s health, be sure to contact your veterinarian and have your feline friend examined.
- Lulich JP, Osborne CA, O’Brien TD, Polzin DJ. Feline renal failure: questions, answers, questions. Compend Contin Educ Pract Vet. 1992;14(2):127-153.
- Marino CL, Lascelles BD, Vaden SL, Gruen ME, Marks SL. The prevalence and classification of chronic kidney disease in cats randomly selected from four age groups and in cats recruited for degenerative joint disease studies. J Feline Med Surg. 2014;16(6):465-472.
- Plotnick A. Feline chronic renal failure: long-term medical management. Compend Contin Educ Pract Vet. 2007;29(6):342-351.