What You Need to Know About Kidney Issues in Cats

What You Need to Know About Kidney Issues in Cats

Kidney issues in cats are common and also complex. Here’s what you need to know about symptoms and support for feline kidney disease.

It’s an unfortunate reality that kidney issues in cats are a very common health struggle for our feline friends. From kidney stones to kidney disease to acute kidney failure, there are many scary things that can go wrong with these important organs. The best way to keep your cat healthy is to know how their kidneys work, the symptoms that will show up when something is wrong, and the best health support options for keeping your pet in tip-top wellness.

All About Your Cat’s Kidneys

To understand the risks of acute and chronic kidney failure and other kidney issues in felines, it’s important to understand:

  • How your cat’s kidneys work
  • The meaning of kidney disease, kidney failure, and kidney stones
  • How these conditions are diagnosed by your veterinarian

How Cat Kidneys Work

Like all of your cat’s organs, kidneys are very important to your cat’s overall health and wellness. All cats, male and female, have two kidneys that are part of the urinary tract system located in their abdomen. These small organs are in charge of many functions, including regulating your cat’s blood pressure, eliminating waste from their blood stream, and creating urine. A cat’s kidneys also influence their hormonal balance and help them stay hydrated and conserve water.

Kidney Disease and Types of Kidney Failure

So what is kidney disease, exactly? Especially in older cats, the kidneys can start to deteriorate and can no longer filter out the toxins from a cat’s bloodstream. This condition – when a cat’s kidneys stop working properly – is known as kidney disease or renal disease.

Kidney failure is the final and most severe stage of kidney disease, and it can either be acute or chronic. Acute kidney failure is when a cat’s kidneys stop working suddenly and abruptly, and it is much less common than chronic kidney failure. Chronic kidney failure refers to the final stages of kidney disease in cats – when the issue has gotten so severe that there isn’t much to be done. This condition is also referred to as end stage renal failure (ESRF).

Kidney disease can be very hard to diagnose, and often diagnosis happens after extensive damage to the kidneys has already occurred, which can make recovery unlikely.

Cats Can Get Kidney Stones, Too

In addition to kidney failure, another common kidney issue in cats is kidney stones. Kidney stones are hard masses that build up in the kidneys, most often in middle-aged or senior cats. These stones are often so small that they don’t impact the cat’s health at all, and many of them are discovered accidentally when a veterinarian is doing an abdominal scan for a different health issue.

Often, veterinarians will leave kidney stones untreated, and the cat doesn’t notice them at all. But if the stones become large enough to disrupt the flow of urine, or small pieces break off that get lodged in the urinary tract, the cat will likely need surgery to address the issue.

How Are Kidney Issues Diagnosed in Cats?

Your veterinarian will do a blood test and look for two biochemical byproducts to identify if your cat is experiencing kidney disease. With this test, they will be able to give you some idea of how far along the kidney disease has progressed and what options your cat might have. Until recently, this was the only way to diagnose kidney disease in cats – which was problematic because the results didn’t show kidney issues until they were very advanced.

Medical improvements in testing more recently have made it easier for a veterinarian to predict if a cat is going to suffer from kidney issues and identify kidney failure much earlier in the cat’s lifespan. This development has allowed for veterinarians and cat owners to be more aggressive in addressing and preventing kidney issues and cats.

A cat using it's litter box

Symptoms of Kidney Issues in Cats

When it comes to protecting your cat’s kidney health, it’s important to know what signs your cat might display if they are suffering from kidney disease or kidney failure. These signs can be subtle, and they include:

  • Coat and fur issues
  • Weight loss
  • Increased urination
  • Excessive thirst

These are common signs of chronic kidney disease in cats. When it comes to acute kidney failure, there are other signs that are often more noticeable.

Poor Coat Health Can Be an Early Sign of Kidney Issues

It’s often dismissed, especially because it’s normal for older cats to struggle with their fur, but an unhealthy coat can be an early indicator of feline kidney disease. This might mean the cat is losing portions of her fur, or her coat texture changes, becoming dry and brittle. While this alone is unlikely to be an indicator, it may point to kidney issues when combined with other symptoms on this list.

Minor Weight Loss or Loss of Appetite

Another common symptom of chronic kidney disease is when a cat loses their appetite or experiences weight loss. Again, these are behavioral changes that are typical among many cats as they get older – even those that don’t experience kidney issues. This is one reason why diagnosing a kidney problem can be so difficult.

Cats with Kidney Issues Often Urinate More

As the kidneys stop being able to function as well, they will try to create more urine in order to remove toxins from the body at a lower concentration. This will result in your cat using the bathroom more often and filling up their litter box more quickly.

Thirst Is Another Sign of Kidney Distress

As your cat pees more, they’ll drink more to make up for the water loss. Thus, excessive thirst or more habitual drinking can be an indicator of kidney disease in cats.

Signs of Acute Kidney Failure Can Be More Severe

All of the above signs are likely indicators of chronic kidney failure and the gradual deterioration of the kidneys. If your cat is experiencing acute kidney failure, the signs will likely be more urgent and intense. Your cat might start vomiting or have diarrhea, and both may be laced with blood. A cat experiencing acute kidney failure may also stop eating completely, have a seizure, or seem severely fatigued. Urinating more frequently and not urinating at all can both be symptoms of this kind of kidney issue.

What Causes Kidney Problems in Cats?

Both chronic and acute kidney failure can have many different causes, some of which are unavoidable. Kidney issues can be caused by:

  • Genetic kidney disfunction
  • A bacterial or viral infection
  • Physical damage to the kidneys
  • Ingesting toxins or poisons

Breed and Genetics Can Impact Kidney Health

Some cats are born with malformed kidneys that don’t work as they should, and this can cause kidney disease. One example of this is polycystic kidney disease, which is very common in Persian cats.

Bacterial and Viral Infections Can Cause Kidney Disease in Cats

Bacterial infections can impact the operation of the kidneys and cause kidney disease. Likewise, viral infections like feline infectious peritonitis virus (FIP) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV) can be the cause of kidney issues in cats. Both of these viral infections have a vaccine that can help protect your cat from this cause of kidney disease.

Physical Damage to the Kidneys Can Cause Issues

Any kind of physical damage to the kidney can impact its operation and therefore cause kidney disease. Kidney damage might result from a fall from a high place, a fight with another cat, or getting hit by a car. One way to protect your cat from these issues is by keeping them indoors.

Toxins and Poisons Are Common Causes

For many cats who experience acute kidney failure, the cause is ingestion of some kind of toxin or poison. They may have been bitten by a snake or insect and the poison overwhelmed their system, or they may have consumed a dangerously toxic house plant, heavy metal, rat poison, or antifreeze. In cases of kidney failure caused by a poison or toxin, immediate veterinary care is vital to ensure your cat’s safety and recovery.

A woman taking samples from her cats litter box to be tested for kidney issues

How to Support Your Cat’s Kidney Health

Prevention is the best way to support your cat’s long, healthy life. Here are some tips for keeping your cat’s kidney health on solid ground:

  • Know your cat’s patterns
  • Keep their routine balanced and complete
  • Make sure your home is toxin-free

Stay Familiar with Your Cat’s Behavior Patterns

You have to have a baseline to refer to in order to know if your cat has lost his appetite, has lost weight, or is urinating more. This means it’s important to stay familiar with your cat’s eating, drinking, and litter box habits. If you can’t be home with your cat regularly, you can measure the amount of water or food that’s gone from their bowl and even keep a little journal of your cat’s appetite and thirst. Similarly, while cleaning the litter box, you can note your cat’s bathroom habits. Knowing the baseline for your cat’s behavior and condition will help you identify if anything changes – slowly or abruptly.

Create a Healthy, Balanced Wellness Routine for Your Cat

A general wellness routine with a healthy cat diet, plenty of mental stimulation and play, and opportunities for rejuvenating rest will be key in keeping your cat’s body in good shape. Your cat needs daily attention and a routine they can rely on, and only their owner can establish that.

Keeping your cat indoors is a great way to control their routine and keep their daily schedule steady. It also makes it easier for you to monitor their habits. Plus, indoor cats are likely to live much longer than outdoor cats.

Ensure Your Home Is a Safe Place for Your Pet

Toxins and poisons are one of the most common reasons that cats experience acute kidney failure. Making sure your home is free of toxic plants (you might be surprised which ones are unsafe for your cat) and keeping your cat away from harmful substances like antifreeze and rat poison can go a long way in keeping your cat’s kidneys healthy.

There Are Options for Cats with Kidney Issues

Options are plentiful if your cat is experiencing kidney issues. Often many of these choices are palliative, meaning they are intended to make your pet more comfortable rather than reverse the disease itself. Your veterinarian can advise you on what’s best for your animal depending on their specific case, but some options include IV fluids for rehydration, medication for nausea, a special diet, or vitamins and supplements to help balance your cat’s bodily processes.

Learning about kidney issues in cats can be overwhelming, but it’s the first step in keeping your cat healthy and safe. Always remember to consult your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your cat’s health and wellness.