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How to Recognize Kidney Failure in Cats

How to Recognize Kidney Failure in Cats

Critter Culture Staff



A cat's kidneys perform the same functions as our kidneys. The kidneys help control blood pressure, regulate hydration, maintain an appropriate balance of electrolytes, and produce hormones that encourage the production of red blood cells. Unfortunately, kidney failure is a prevalent diagnosis for cats. Kidney failure, or renal failure, means the kidneys aren't functioning correctly. Approximately 1 out of every three cats experiences kidney disease. Although kidney failure is a serious condition, there is hope for managing the disease.


Acute vs. chronic kidney failure

Cats may develop acute or chronic kidney failure. Acute kidney failure happens quickly and affects cats of any age. Common causes of acute kidney failure include toxic plants, human medications, pesticides, poisons, dehydration, injury, trauma, or a physical blockage in the urethra. Many cases of acute kidney failure can be reversed with early intervention.

Chronic kidney failure develops gradually over months or years. The leading causes of chronic kidney failure include autoimmune disorders, infections, other illnesses, cysts within the kidneys, genetics, and age. Cats with chronic kidney failure slowly lose the ability to remove toxins and waste products from the blood.

sleeping cat zlyka2008 / Getty Images


Acute symptoms

Acute kidney failure can be painful. Your cat may have a stiff-legged gait or arched back. A partial physical blockage in the urethra interrupts urine flow, so the cat can only pass small amounts at a time. Cats with complete blockages can't urinate at all. Your cat may go to the litter box frequently and meow or growl while trying to urinate. A distended bladder feels like a hard lump about the size of an apricot in the cat's abdomen.

cat with arched back Ekaterina Gorokhova / Getty Images


Chronic symptoms

Unfortunately, cats are good at hiding illness. Cat owners may not notice signs of chronic kidney failure until the condition is advanced. Symptoms include weakness, weight loss, poor appetite, diarrhea, dehydration, vomiting, depression, and bad breath. Your cat may drink more water than usual and try to urinate more often. The cat may also urinate on the floor or soak the litter box quickly.

A cat drinking from a tap in a kitchen MarioGuti / Getty Images


End-stage kidney failure

cat with one cloudy eye

The last stage of kidney disease is called end-stage kidney failure. Other symptoms include sunken or cloudy eyes, bowel and bladder incontinence, body odor, blindness, and restlessness. Cats may have seizures and refuse to eat or drink. Some cats pace in circles with an unsteady gait, while others may be unable to walk. It's not uncommon for cats to experience a sudden improvement, but this is only temporary.



Veterinarians evaluate kidney function with blood and urine tests. A urinalysis measures concentrations of waste products and other components in urine. Blood tests measure waste products called BUN and creatinine. Veterinarians also look at concentrations of red blood cells, proteins, and electrolytes such as sodium and potassium. Other diagnostic tools include ultrasound, X-ray, or a kidney biopsy.

veterinarian examining cat Vasyl Dolmatov / Getty Images


Treatment for chronic kidney failure

Chronic kidney failure in cats is graded according to a system developed by the International Renal Interest Society. Veterinarians recommend treatments based on each stage's symptoms and disease progression. Treatment in the first stage and the beginning of the second stage focuses on the underlying cause of kidney failure. Veterinarians usually concentrate on slowing disease progression and managing symptoms during the late second stage and the third stage of illness.

veterinarian holding cat SIBAS_minich / Getty Images


Nutritional management

Nutritional management can slow kidney disease progression and control some symptoms. A veterinarian may recommend a renal diet with limited amounts of protein, phosphorus, and sodium. However, cats with poor appetites may not do well on a strict renal diet. If this happens, abandon the renal diet and offer the cat a variety of foods. Your cat's preferences may change frequently, so try to provide some new foods each day. Offer small meals several times per day. A high-fat diet is best when cats only eat small amounts.

cat eating tuna fillet food from white ceramic plate insonnia / Getty Images


Palliative care

Palliative care may be the only treatment option for cats in the fourth stage, or end-stage, of kidney failure. Your veterinarian may prescribe medications to relieve pain and discomfort. Make up a soft bed in a quiet area, so your kitty is warm and comfortable. Keep food and water nearby, and use a very shallow container as a litter box, so the cat doesn't struggle to reach it. Put washable pads in the cat bed to manage incontinence and keep your cat clean. Spend plenty of time with your kitty and provide as much attention as they want.

cat lying on bed in bedroom room, being massaged, petted stroked on forehead krblokhin / Getty Images


Treatment of acute kidney failure

Take your cat to a veterinarian immediately if you suspect acute kidney failure. Successful treatment depends on early diagnosis. You may need an emergency veterinary clinic. Medical interventions address the cause of kidney failure. Your veterinarian may surgically remove a blockage in the urethra or remove contents from the cat's stomach if a toxic substance was ingested. The veterinary team may administer IV fluids to address an electrolyte imbalance. Some veterinary clinics offer dialysis that filters waste products and toxins from the bloodstream while the kidneys recover.

Maine coon cat sitting in the cage at the animal and treating by Intravenous fluid therapy with blur infusion pump sommart / Getty Images



You can take steps to protect your cat's kidneys to lower the risk of kidney failure. Cats are prone to dehydration because they don't always drink enough water. Feed your cat a mixture of wet and dry food to increase fluid intake. Keep bowls of fresh, clean water available at all times. Make it easy for your kitty to urinate frequently by placing multiple litter boxes in different parts of your home. Clean and freshen the litter daily. Schedule regular checkups with your veterinarian to catch illnesses and other health disorders early.

Closeup of unrecognizable woman offering water to ginger cat lying on bed SeventyFour / Getty Images


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