No cat parent wants to think about the terrible diseases that can happen to their beloved felines. Yet we all know that it’s important to be educated on serious conditions such as kidney disease in cats.
Knowledge is power, and by the end of this article, you should know everything you need to know about kidney disease, including:
- Disease progression
- Raw or commercial kidney diet (which is best for your cat)
- What choices you have at every stage
What Is Kidney Disease In Cats?
Kidneys have the important job of eliminating protein waste, producing urine, and balancing the salts, acids, and water in your cat’s body.
They contribute to healthy blood pressure, make hormones, and are responsible for signaling bone marrow to create more red blood cells.
Kidney disease can interrupt any of these processes to catastrophic effects.
Kidney disease is also known as:
- Renal disease
- Kidney failure
It’s a frighteningly common problem for senior cats and even some younger felines.
Renal disease can either be congenital, which means it existed at birth, or it could be developmental, which means it developed over time.
For congenital and developmental, early diagnosis greatly increases the effectiveness of treatment and your cat’s quality of life.
Though it can be hard to detect, astute pet parents and veterinarians may be able to see the signs before it’s too late.
Two Categories of Kidney Disease
There are two categories of kidney disease in cats: Chronic and Acute.
While the symptoms and signs of each are similar, knowing which category your cat’s kidney failure falls under can affect the treatment options available.
Chronic Kidney Disease
This is persistent and happens slowly over time.
This is sometimes a congenital problem, meaning kidney issues were already present at birth.
It may be caused by structural abnormalities or other, more hidden issues.
It can also happen due to illness, ingestion of toxic substances, or an injury.
Affected cats are often able to compensate for years before noticeable symptoms arise.
Many of the symptoms of renal issues are difficult to notice individually.
This is especially true for chronic, congenital renal disease before it’s diagnosed.
Many of the signs and symptoms of chronic kidney disease can be mistakenly attributed to your cat’s personality or normal habits.
For example, dehydration is one of the symptoms but is difficult to recognize in cats if they’ve always been picky drinkers.
Acute Kidney Disease
This happens quickly, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier to spot.
Acute kidney disease is usually due to a severe injury or ingestion of a toxic substance.
We all know that cats are masters at hiding injuries and illnesses, so the triggering factor for their acute renal disease may go unnoticed.
The symptoms come on quickly and can progress rapidly if not treated right away.
Why is chronic kidney disease common in domestic cats?
It’s been long noted that chronic kidney disease is common in domestic cats but not in wild cats.
Some vets believe it has to do with the nature of provided protein shortly after kittens are weaned.
Cats in their natural habitats will eat what they were designed to eat:
Domestic cats, however, are generally fed commercial pet foods.
Other people believe it has to do with the amount of moisture in their diets. Both theories can be argued for years, but it doesn’t really solve the problem.
The truth is that nobody knows for certain.
What we do know is that well-fed, properly maintained felines can and do live long happy lives.
And even those diagnosed with some forms of kidney disease can still have happy days ahead with the proper care.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of kidney issues early on greatly increases your cat’s chances of survival.
What Are The Signs Of Kidney Disease In Cats?
The signs of renal disease in cats are often frustratingly subtle.
Since many cats are naturally finicky, it can be difficult to distinguish between a cat developing a new, endearing quirk or the symptom of a serious disease.
Even so, it’s important to note any sudden changes in your cat’s behavior or habits.
Keep a close eye out for the following signs of kidney failure in your cat.
- Increased Thirst
One of the earliest signs of kidney disease is increased thirst.
If your cat suddenly camps out by the water bowl and is constantly drinking, you should take note.
Since some cats will only drink when nobody is watching which makes this sign difficult to catch.
It’s also hard to tell if one cat is drinking more if he shares a water bowl with other pets.
If you suspect your cat is drinking more, but he’s hiding or there are other pets in the household, try isolating your kitty and monitoring his water intake for 24 hours.
- Frequent Urination
For cats that go outdoors to relieve themselves, frequent urination may be impossible to detect.
For indoor cat parents, seeing larger clumps in clumping litter or finding a flooded litter box could be an early sign of kidney disease.
Pay attention to your cat’s bathroom habits if they seem to be changing.
- Subtle Weight Loss
Weight loss due to kidney disease can happen slowly.
That makes it harder to notice, especially in cats who are picky eaters or who often skip meals.
I don’t feel it’s excessive to weigh your cat every day for a week or more to log any changes.
Isn’t it worth a few minutes each day to save your cat’s life?
- Decreased Appetite
Once kidney disease has progressed to moderate or severe, you may notice a decrease in your cat’s appetite.
Picky eaters make this symptom tougher to recognize.
If you suspect your picky cat may be suffering from kidney failure, you can try giving her a coveted treat.
If she refuses, and she has any of the other signs listed here, it’s worth a trip to your vet.
- Unexplained Vomiting
Some cats just vomit as a normal part of their lives.
My female Sphynx, Neffie, throws up daily.
After extensive testing, the vet reported, “She just pukes a lot!” This has earned her the nickname “The Regurgitator” in our household.
However, if your cat is not prone to vomiting for no reason, pay close attention if he begins throwing up.
Of course, you’ll want to check for the obvious culprits: a change in diet, stressors in the home, or possible ingestion of a non-food item.
If you can’t find an obvious environmental reason for your cat’s sudden vomiting, and he shows any of the other signs listed here, he may be suffering from kidney failure.
- Sudden or Increased Weight Loss
Unlike the subtle weight loss mentioned above, sudden weight loss is usually obvious.
Combined with a loss of appetite and vomiting, quickly decreasing weight is a major sign of trouble.
It can trigger dehydration and malnutrition, both of which put extreme strain on your cat’s already taxed kidneys.
Get to the vet immediately!
- Changing Sleep Patterns
A normal, healthy cat can sleep for over 12 – 16 hours a day.
Since cats tend to sleep so much, it’s difficult to notice when they’re sleeping more.
The easiest way to figure this out is to be aware of your cat’s normal sleep patterns.
For example, if she’s normally awake during dinner time, purring and twirling around your ankles for table scraps, but she is suddenly sound asleep when dinner is served, that is cause for concern.
- Lack of Energy
It’s no secret that cats can be lazy just for the heck of it.
For many cat lovers, that’s an endearing trait. Even if your kitty falls into the “lazy” category, there are probably times where she is playful, affectionate, and social.
If your feline friend suddenly shirks social interaction or refuses to play with a favorite toy, it may be a sign of trouble.
Beyond play time or social time, a cat that walks with a drooping tail and/or an unsteady stride should be seen by a vet immediately.
- Change in Grooming Habits
Meticulous grooming is the hallmark of cathood.
All cats take great pride in their appearance, so it’s usually obvious when they stop grooming themselves. Look for unkempt fur, dirty paws, and a “mucky” rear end.
Other Signs of Kidney Disease In Cats
Among the symptoms already listed, keep an eye out for the following signs of kidney disease.
- Pale gums. Healthy cat gums should be pink. If you notice your cat’s gums are a lighter shade of pink or extremely pale, that can be a sign of anemia, which goes along with kidney disease.
- Bad breath. Though many cat owners have commented that their cat’s breath smells faintly of fish, unusual bad breath is a worrisome sign. If your cat’s breath suddenly smells like ammonia, check his mouth. Oral ulcers often accompany kidney disease and can cause terrible breath.
- Bloody urine. Finding a puddle of bloody urine in the litter box or on the floor is startling for pet parents. It’s also a major sign of trouble. Waste no time getting to the vet.
- Enlarged abdomen. With long-haired breeds, an enlarged abdomen may be difficult to detect until it’s too late. It’s important to feel your cat’s body and come to recognize unusual growths or enlargement of the abdomen.
What are the specific types of feline kidney disease?
There are many types of kidney disease in cats. Some are congenital and some are developmental.
Your veterinarian will be able to tell you which type your cat has.
While I can’t get into every specific type of renal disease, here are some types you may encounter.
- Renal agenesis is the failure of kidney formation: sometimes kidneys don’t form at all.
- Renal dysplasia: means abnormal kidney development.
- If one or both kidneys are displaced, your cat may be diagnosed with renal ectopia.
- And then there is polycystic kidney disease which comes with the formation of cysts throughout the kidney tissue.
Kidneys are complex.
That means there are a lot of things that could go wrong.
Structural issues, blood vessel problems, responses to outside influences, all the way down to the cells that make up the kidneys—there’s so much to know about these small but important organs.
While listing all of the exact diseases and congenital problems are beyond the scope of this article, I found a comprehensive list right here.
This informative video can also help shed some light on kidney failure in cats:
What Causes Kidney Disease In Cats?
The causes of renal failure in felines range from hereditary to environmental and everything in between.
Kidneys are delicate and prone to injury, infection, and problems with diet. Sometimes, there is no real reason behind kidney issues other than age. Unfortunately, some veterinary medications can also cause kidney damage over time.
Common causes of kidney disease include:
- ages greater than 7 years old
- kidney stones
- urinary blockage
- polycystic kidney disease.
Your cat’s specific breed may predispose him to kidney disease.
At-risk breeds include:
Poisons are one of the leading causes of renal failure in cats.
Poisoning is easily avoidable by taking care to keep all toxic chemicals out of your kitty’s environment.
But what should you look for?
- Ibuprofen and other human medications
- Toxic plants such as lilies
- Cleaning fluids
It’s important to remember that simply removing these toxic substances from your cat’s environment may not be enough.
Things like antifreeze or caustic cleaning fluids may be tracked into the house on your shoes or on your clothes.
Be vigilant about cleaning up and keeping these substances out of your kitty’s reach.
Any trauma to your cat’s body could trigger renal failure.
This is especially true for any injuries that involve a broken pelvis or a damaged bladder.
Bring your cat to the vet if he suffers any traumatic injuries.
Like cats, kidney infections come in all shapes and sizes.
Many of them are curable, but if left untreated, kidney infections can quickly lead to renal failure.
Some causes of kidney infections include kidney stones, birth defects, and blockages of the urinary tract.
Many other common feline diseases can lead to kidney failure.
Advanced dental disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and thyroid issues can all be to blame.
Kidney stones and blockages can each affect overall kidney health, too.
How Is Feline Kidney Disease Diagnosed?
If you are concerned that your cat may be suffering from kidney disease, even if they’re not showing any of the symptoms listed here, it’s worth the peace of mind to visit your veterinarian.
She can run a series of tests to either set your mind at ease or diagnose the problem and begin treatment right away.
At the vet’s office, your kitty will have a series of quick and painless blood tests done, which includes a chemical blood profile and a complete blood count.
Your vet will also perform a urinalysis and complete physical exam.
Anemia is common in cats with chronic kidney disease.
Your vet will also check electrolyte levels and blood pressure.
If your cat is suffering from renal issues, creatine and blood urea nitrogen will be high.
Ultrasound and x-rays are often used to measure the size and shape of cats’ kidneys.
As you can see above for my Bubs, his left kidney was almost double to size of a normal kidney.
Also see, that you really can’t see his right kidney.
Below is another view showing the size of his right kidney versus his left:
Kitties suffering chronic renal failure often have abnormally small kidneys, which are easy to see on ultrasound and x-rays.
In some cases, your vet may decide to do a biopsy.
This small tissue sample is a reliable way to diagnose kidney problems.
Is there any way to prevent kidney disease in cats?
Cats with congenital renal issues are already set up for possible kidney failure in the future; nothing you do will prevent that.
Proper care and consideration for your cat’s unique needs can help prolong their life and stave off the disease, however.
For acute cases, the only way to prevent renal failure would be to prevent all injuries or other damaging outside influences.
That’s not always possible, though it doesn’t hurt to try.
Keep your cat’s life easy, stress-free, and safe to help avoid injuries or poisoning.
Though you can’t 100% prevent kidney problems in cats predisposed to them or those whose kidneys were accidentally compromised in some way, you can make every effort to follow your vet’s advice for slowing down the progression of the disease.
What are the treatments for kidney disease in cats?
There is no known cure for chronic renal failure, but the symptoms can be treated.
If caught early, there are a number of treatments that can prolong your kitty’s life and help him live more comfortably.
The longer you wait for a diagnosis, however, the fewer options there will be.
One of the first treatment your kitty will receive is fluid therapy.
Because the kidneys are not functioning properly, your cat may be extremely dehydrated.
Fluid therapy helps replace depleted fluid levels. It’s a quick way to help your cat start to feel better.
You may be asked to supplement your kitty’s fluid intake subcutaneously.
That involves injecting fluids directly under the skin. It is relatively painless but highly effective.
Kidney Diet For Cats
Fluid therapy alone is not enough to treat renal disease.
Your vet will likely prescribe a new, stricter diet for your cat.
You can either follow your vet’s advice or opt for making your cat a healthy raw diet.
Just note, not all vets are right or know everything.
Use your best judgment.
Too much protein can compound the problem, for example.
At the same time, you don’t want to restrict too much protein or your cat could suffer other health problems.
The kidney diet includes lower amounts of:
This simple switch in food is often enough to help your kitty perk up.
Unfortunately, the kidney diet doesn’t taste very good. Many cats refuse this change, so it’s best to go about the switch slowly.
If your picky kitty is still resistance to the new kidney diet, ask your vet if you can add a little bit of tuna juice to her food.
Some cats really enjoy low-sodium chicken stock.
There are also special flavor enhancers on the market to help make your cat’s new diet more palatable.
Supplements For Cats With Kidney Disease
Along with a new, healthier diet, your vet may recommend supplements.
Phosphorus binders are one common supplement for cats suffering renal failure.
Vitamin D supplements are another favorite.
It’s important to avoid any home remedies or herbal supplements.
Your sweet kitty is depending on you to make good decisions regarding her care now that she is suffering from kidney disease.
Some herbal supplements will do much more harm than good. It’s just not worth the risk.
Be sure to follow your vet’s dietary and supplement advice carefully.
A severely anemic cat may be treated with a blood transfusion.
It’s not usually the first option, but for a very sick cat, it may be the best choice.
Feline blood transfusions are complicated and come with additional risks, however.
Even though you can’t cure renal failure, there is a handful of medications that can help improve your cat’s quality of life.
- H-2 receptor blockers
- Erythropoietin for red blood cell production
- Anti-hypertensives to help decrease blood pressure
- Benazepril for later stages of kidney disease
Unproven Treatments For Kidney Disease In Cats
It’s scary when your beloved companion is diagnosed with kidney disease.
The thought of losing your best friend may push you to investigate unproven treatments.
While nobody can blame you for exploring every available avenue, you should never treat your cat for renal failure without the supervision of your veterinary team.
With that said, some controversial and complex therapies can be discussed with your vet.
They include hemodialysis, which removes toxic waste products from the bloodstream, and kidney transplantation.
Or I came across this site that delved into the area of holistic healing using the EFT Tapping Method.
The author here states that her tapping method literally helped cure her cat’s kidney disease.
It may sound a bit woo-woo or just plain unbelievable but keep an open mind.
Not all vets are right.
Not all vets know holistic ways of healing.
Not all vets know everything.
When you feel totally helpless and your cat is suffering, you WILL try anything to make them better.
What Are The Stages Of Kidney Disease In Cats?
According to the International Renal Interest Society (IRIS), there are four stages of kidney disease.
Stage 1: Early Kidney Insufficiency
At this early stage, your vet will often find a large amount of protein in your cat’s urine.
High blood pressure and a creatine level greater than 1.5 will likely be noted.
Treatment at this stage includes annual blood pressure, blood tests, and urine testing.
Dental care recommendations are common to prevent periodontal disease, which can exacerbate renal problems.
Calcitriol therapy will help replace vitamin D.
Abdominal x-rays may be ordered to rule out kidney stones.
Stage 2: Late Stage Kidney Insufficiency
Stage 2 kidney disease in cats will show creatine levels above 2.2.
Your vet will note that your cat’s urine is not being concentrated, which is a clear sign that the kidneys are failing.
Stage 2 renal failure treatment includes everything in stage 1 plus a potassium supplement.
Your cat will likely be started on the kidney diet mentioned above.
Your vet may prescribe the medication Benazepril to help decrease blood pressure within the kidneys.
Blood pressure and all blood and urine testing should be increased to twice a year.
Stage 3: Early Kidney Failure
As your cat enters stage 3 of renal failure, her creatine levels will rise above 3.5.
Treatment for stage 3 kidney disease includes everything listed in stage 1 and 2.
At this point, your vet may recommend blood tests every 3 to 6 months.
Urine testing will be once a year or more.
Azodyl may be prescribed; this probiotic supplement helps trap nitrogen waste products in the intestines.
Cats in stage 3 renal failure may not be able to drink enough water.
Subcutaneous fluids may be required.
If your cat is suffering from nausea, vomiting, and GI ulcers, your vet will likely prescribe medications to keep her more comfortable.
Stage 4: Cat’s Kidneys Are Now Functioning At Less Than 15%.
With creatine levels above 5, stage 4 kidney disease in cats can be scary.
Treatments from stage 1 through 3 will continue.
Anemia will likely be a problem at this point, so your vet will want to treat that with medications.
Making your pet comfortable will be a top priority now.
Acute renal failure or any sudden worsening of symptoms could require extended hospitalization for your cat.
What Is The Life Expectancy Of A Cat With Kidney Disease?
I know that this is the biggest question on the minds of any pet parent facing renal failure with their cats.
As much as I wish I could give you an answer, there simply isn’t one set in stone.
Life expectancy for cats with kidney disease can be as short as a month or extend out for many years. There are far too many factors for each individual cat to give a direct answer to everyone.
For acute renal failure, life expectancy is heavily influenced by the original cause of the renal failure and any complications since.
If it was due to traumatic injury, and you responded immediately, your cat’s life expectancy will be greater than if he had received no treatment at all.
At the same time, certain injuries just can’t be treated.
Cats suffering chronic renal failure tend to have a higher life expectancy than those suffering from acute renal failure.
This is especially true if the disease is caught early and intervention begins immediately.
Can Kidney Disease In Cats Be Reversed?
As with most of the questions posed in this article, this one has a multi-faceted answer. It really depends on a lot of factors.
Chronic kidney disease can’t usually be reversed. The fact that its chronic means it’s been happening over a period of time or has happened repeatedly.
Each episode causes damage, which builds up over time.
Acute kidney disease, however, may be reversed if treated quickly.
That’s not to say your cat’s kidneys will fully recover and never cause him any further issues, but fast treatment could mitigate damages to the point that your kitty’s life isn’t shortened.
When Should I Consider Euthanizing My Cat With Kidney Disease?
This is another of those questions that no cat parent wants to be faced with.
My best suggestion is to consider your cat’s quality of life.
But how do you do that when your heart is breaking?
Below are the last moments we had with our Bubs:
One of the simplest ways to decide what constitutes a good quality of life for your cat is to consider her habits and behaviors before she got sick.
You know her best after all.
- Think of her favorite activities. Is she able to enjoy those now?
- Think of her favorite foods. Is she allowed to eat those, or is her diet limited?
- If she’s allowed to have her favorite foods, has she been refusing them?
- Think about social time. Has your cat been avoiding you? Has she been avoiding her favorite playmates?
- Can she reach her favorite lounging spots on her own or does she require your help?
You can also consider how your cat is feeling now.
- Is he in pain?
- Does his medication cause him to vomit or feel ill most of the time?
- Is he able to use his litter box, or does he have frequent accidents?
- Is he interested in grooming himself, or has he simply stopped caring?
- Can he breathe well or is he struggling for each breath?
How to Deal with the Loss of Your Cat
I remember waking up the day after I said goodbye to my precious feline companion Garrus.
It felt like my whole world had ended.
I missed his good morning meow, his strangely loud purr, and his sweet little trilling when I poured my cereal.
That morning, I stared at my bowl, my spoon perched on the edge, and I just cried. He was gone and I was lost.
Dealing with the loss of a cat is never easy, but there are many things you can do to help you make it through the toughest days.
One thing that helped me was talking with friends and family who knew Garrus. We shared stories and laughed at my silly little boy’s antics.
We cried together and hugged.
If you’re not feeling social or like you can face other humans right now, that’s okay, too.
You can reach out to other pet parents on message boards and social media.
They’ll listen to your story and offer support and kindness from afar.
Look at pictures and videos of your angel kitty.
It may be hard at first, but simply seeing them as they were in life can heal a broken heart.
Did you know that the other pets in your household are grieving too?
Spending some quality time with your other pets can soothe you both.
Journaling or simply writing out your feelings is an incredibly therapeutic way to handle the loss of your cat.
You can keep the writing or throw it out, but just getting it out on paper can help a lot.
Did you have a ceremony for your cat?
This is one of my family’s ways of saying goodbye.
We all get together and say a few words, blow kisses, and spend a few moments in quiet reflection near the grave or the ashes.
Above all else, remember that you have the right to grieve.
You have lost someone incredibly important to you, so it’s okay to take time for yourself.
Another story to tell from Toki, Cat Veteran chief editor:
A week or so prior December 15, 2018, I noticed my big Bubs sleeping by my back garage door where the laundry room was.
It happened a few times over a few days and I didn’t think anything of it.
Then one-morning mid-week, he threw up all his morning food.
We have been feeding our cats a cooked diet for over 6 months now.
No biggie, I cleaned it up and thought he must’ve eaten too fast.
Come to the second feeding, again he threw it up. Not normal.
We took him to the vet where they gave him intravenous fluids, an anti-nausea injection and a Barium sulfate solution to see if he had a blockage.
During the exam, the vets saw nothing wrong, he looked great but felt he was tender near his tummy area.
Basically, the barium is a white radio-opaque metallic powder that was given to him and when he swallowed it, the barium would coat the inside walls of his GI tract.
He ended up pooping later that day with the white powder all over it. No blockage.
He also ate and kept it down after coming home from the vet because of that anti-nausea injection.
That was the last time he ever ate again.
The next morning, he didn’t show up to feeding time.
He ALWAYS was there. He loved eating. He loved eating everyone’s food too.
He lay on his chair just looking at me with glassy eyes. So sad.
I immediately took him back to the vet where we did blood work.
This is where it revealed his kidneys were shot.
His levels are so high, they didn’t register. Turns out, one of the kidneys was already non-functioning and his other was almost double the normal size.
It worked too hard and it failed.
They tried to do the 48 hour IV fluids but he wasn’t peeing. So they had to stop.
All that excess water to going into his body, lungs and he was having a hard time breathing.
His kidney stopped functioning. There wasn’t anything we could do, he was suffering.
It was the saddest day, to date, of my life.
He went from seemingly fine to being gone within a matter of days.
I felt helpless, responsible and totally blame myself. I still do.
I should’ve done senior blood work every 6 months after 10 years old.
We would’ve caught it.
I still say his name and I still feel him. He’ll just jump on my lap and snuggle trying to eat my food.
I miss him dearly. He’ll never be replaced. Ever.
We cope by telling stories and looking at pictures.
Things will come up that my other 3 cats do and that will spark a conversation about him.
You’re Not Alone.
I know it may feel hopeless right now, but there is a light for you.
If your cat was just diagnosed, is progressing through kidney disease, or you’ve recently had to say goodbye, you are not alone.
Everyone here at Catveteran.com understands your struggle.
I hope this article has been educational and comforting in some way during this difficult time.