What you need to know about chronic kidney disease in cats

As a pet owner, you are likely aware of the importance of regular vet checkups and treatments to keep your furry family member healthy. However, when it comes to Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD) in cats, it's important to be even more vigilant.

Signs of this potentially devastating condition can often go unnoticed until the later stages if not monitored closely by an experienced veterinarian – but with knowledge and understanding, there is a lot that owners can do to help their cat live as comfortable a life as possible.

Our expert vet, Dr Rosalind Holland (BVSc, MVM, MANZCVS) provides useful advice on how to recognise the condition and give your kitty the best care that they deserve.

Understanding the function of feline kidneys

Before we dive into the specifics of chronic kidney disease, it's important to understand the basics of how your cat's kidneys work. The kidneys filter waste from their blood, balance fluid levels and remove waste products from their blood – all essential functions for a healthy animal.

If your cat has CKD, these processes are impaired due to damage or disease in the kidneys. In cats, this can be caused by two main types of damage – acute (sudden) or chronic (long-term).

Dr Holland emphasises that acute kidney disease presents very differently from chronic kidney disease, “Although both are serious, acute kidney disease is a medical emergency and presents very differently to chronic kidney disease. Chronic kidney disease is the condition that cat owners are more likely to be familiar with as this has a much more gradual progression and a longer disease course than acute kidney disease. 

Cats with acute kidney disease “will appear severely unwell, they might be lethargic, show neurological signs such as staggering when walking, and either produce large volumes of urine or little to no urine.” According to Dr Holland, if your cat shows any of these signs, it may be a medical emergency and veterinary care should be sought promptly.

This differs from chronic kidney disease which “has a much slower progression, cats may show gradual muscle loss, which might be detected by feeling their bones becoming more prominent, they may have occasional vomiting, and they may start to drink and urinate more.”

What does Chronic Kidney Disease mean for cats?

If your cat is diagnosed with CKD, it means their kidneys are not functioning properly and cannot filter waste as effectively. 

It is important to note that cats can still live a comfortable life with CKD; however, it requires careful management from their owners as well as regular visits to the vet for treatment and monitoring.

According to the New Zealand Veterinary Journal, about 10% of the general cat population and up to 35% of older cats are affected by CKD. The disease can lead to a build-up of waste products in the blood, causing a variety of health problems. 

Common causes of Chronic Kidney Disease in cats

The exact cause of CKD in cats can be hard to pin down and as Dr Holland lets us know, in most cases an underlying cause may not be identified. Some known potential causes include:

  • Ageing
  • Inherited conditions
  • Cancer
  • Toxins
  • Poor blood flow to the kidneys (i.e. a blood clot)
  • Infections
  • Kidney stones

Other possible causes include dietary habits, exposure to toxins and poor water quality. In some cases, cats might be born with the disease due to congenital defects in their kidneys.

Telltale signs: Recognising symptoms of Chronic Kidney Disease in cats

Early detection of CKD can make a significant difference in managing the disease and improving your cat’s quality of life. Some symptoms to keep an eye out for include:

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Neurological difficulties e.g. staggering and poor balance

Remember, cats are masters at hiding discomfort, so these symptoms might not appear until the disease has advanced considerably. Later stages of CKD will bring about additional symptoms such as bad breath, oral ulcers, and loss of muscle tissue.

Nurturing Kidney Health: Treatment and Prevention approaches

Treatment options for Feline Chronic Kidney Disease

Unfortunately, there's no cure for CKD. However, there are several treatment options available that can help manage the disease and make your cat more comfortable.

Dietary management could be one of the most effective approaches. Your vet might recommend a diet low in phosphorus and protein but high in omega-3 fatty acids. These diets are readily available as dry and wet foods from your local vet or some pet stores. Medications to control blood pressure, reduce vomiting, and manage anaemia might also be prescribed.

In some cases, your vet might suggest subcutaneous fluid therapy. This involves giving your cat fluids under their skin to help flush out the kidneys and aid in hydration.

Early detection of Chronic Kidney Disease in cats

While we can’t necessarily prevent CKD, we can certainly take steps to reduce risks and detect cases early. 

CKD can be very serious, fortunately, Dr Holland says that it can often be detected on blood tests. So regular check-ups with your vet are a must, even when your cat shows no symptoms. This gets more and more important as your cat ages, as CKD is one of the most common diseases in elderly cats. Dr Holland also suggests “regularly weighing your cat can be very helpful as they get older to monitor their body condition.”

Additionally, a balanced diet and keeping your cat hydrated can go a long way in promoting kidney health. Some tips to keep your cat hydrated include:

  • Ensuring a good supply of fresh water is available
  • Using flavoured water (chicken or tuna)
  • Water fountains to encourage drinking
  • Adding further water to the food
  • Using intermittent intravenous fluid therapy at a vet clinic

While most cases of kidney disease in cats are not preventable, Dr Holland provides some tips you can take to reduce the risk of chronic kidney disease in cats:

  • Keep your cat from environmental toxins: Keeping your cat safe at home or restricted to contained outdoor areas such as catios reduces the chance of them being exposed to toxins.
  • Keep a close eye on medication: Never give your cat human medications and strictly follow instructions for vet-prescribed medication.
  • Education on common toxics: Many toxins exist in and around our homes and can pose risks to our pets. Common toxicities cats present at vets include lilies (common house plants!) and anti-freeze.

Seeking veterinary support: Knowing when to reach out

If your cat exhibits any symptoms of CKD, it's important to get them checked out by your vet straight away. Early detection and treatment can significantly slow the progression of the disease and help your furry friend live a longer, happier life.

Even if your cat seems as fit as a fiddle, regular veterinary checks are vital, especially as they enter their senior years. 

Get an early start

We can’t plan for everything, but you can have a plan in place for your pet's health. Consider securing a pet insurance policy through SPCA Pet Insurance. With a range of flexible options, you can protect your feline friends when health concerns arise. And remember, every policy helps support the great work of SPCA, who help vulnerable animals across the country.