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Health & Wellness

Kidney failure in dogs — here’s what to expect

Kidney failure in dogs is a very serious health diagnosis, but catching it early can offer treatment options to extend life.

There’s no beating around the bush — kidney failure in dogs is a very serious health condition that needs to be caught and addressed as early as possible. While the causes of kidney failure are extensive (the cause does affect outcomes and treatment options), left unchecked, kidney failure is always fatal. If you notice common symptoms of kidney failure, it’s important to get your pet to the vet right away — it’s the best way to give your pup an optimistic chance at a long and healthy life. 

What is kidney failure in dogs?

Just as humans rely on their kidneys as a blood filter, dogs do, too. "Kidney failure is a disease where the kidneys stop functioning appropriately," Dr. Chloe Matelski, DVM, a traveling relief veterinarian for Pathway Vet Alliance, says. "The kidneys are responsible for filtering blood, making urine, managing electrolytes (which are essentially the 'batteries' that make life happen), prompting the body to make red blood cells and managing blood pressure. When the kidneys fail, we see changes in these areas."

Symptoms of kidney failure in dogs

It's always tricky to know when your dog is temporarily under the weather or when their change in behavior or health is an indicator of a more serious, underlying condition. Often, dogs' early signs and symptoms of kidney failure may not be all that different from a temporary illness. "The most common symptoms, especially early on, are usually GI-related, such as a loss of appetite or vomiting," Dr. Matelski says. "We also see lethargy, sometimes abdominal pain and ultimately decreased urine production."

If your dog is displaying any of these symptoms, it's important to get it to see the vet right away. Even if they aren't suffering from kidney failure, a vet can diagnose and treat whatever is causing the symptoms.

RELATED: Pet emergency preparedness plan

Causes of kidney failure in dogs

Matelski explains that kidney failure in dogs is typically (though not always) separated into one of two categories: chronic kidney disease (CKD) or acute kidney injury (AKI).

CKD is usually genetic, progressive and typically seen in older dogs. AKI, on the other hand, is typically caused by infections, toxicities or cardiovascular events. Kidney failure isn’t associated more with certain breeds. And because AKI is associated with toxicities and infections, it can affect all ages of dogs.

While CKD and AKI are the most frequent causes of kidney failure in dogs, other causes are possible. “Congenital abnormalities, such as renal dysplasia, can affect puppies and adolescents,” Dr. Matelski explains, adding, “Urinary blockages from tumors or stones will lead to rapid kidney failure and death if left untreated.” She also points out that kidney cancer, or cancers that spread to the kidneys and affect their functioning, causes kidney failure in dogs.

Common toxicities that cause kidney failure in dogs

While CKD is considered a chronic, progressive disease, typically related to genetics (and therefore, not preventable), AKI is often related to consuming foods or other toxic materials. It’s important to be aware of the most common toxicities to make sure you’re keeping them away from your pets.

“Avoid grapes and raisins, human NSAID medications such as Advil and Aleve, antifreeze and vitamin D3,” Dr. Matelski says. Just as you’d keep medications, vitamins and supplements and household cleaners or car fluids out of the reach or availability of your children, you need to do the same for your pets to help keep them safe.

But toxicities aren’t the only common cause of AKI. Regular veterinary care and vaccinations can also help prevent long-term problems. “It’s important to vaccinate against leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that can lead to AKI and death,” Matelski warns.

Treatment and long-term outcomes for kidney failure in dogs

As serious as kidney failure in dogs is, your dog does have options for extended life. The type of kidney failure and its underlying cause significantly impact long-term outcomes. Also, catching kidney failure early, before extensive damage takes place, can help reduce negative outcomes.

“CKD is an irreversible condition. With treatments, quality life can be prolonged, but ultimately, the kidneys will worsen and often lead to death,” Dr. Matelski says. “AKI can sometimes be treated, and the kidneys can be saved from long-term damage.” When treatment is an option, it typically includes IV fluids administered at an animal hospital or at home along with specially-formulated diets designed to slow CKD progression.

One other thing to keep in mind is that routine blood work can help identify kidney failure early, which ultimately can help improve outcomes. “Having routine blood work done, including SDMA, an early marker for predisposed dogs, can lead to early diagnosis,” Dr. Matelski says. And when you receive an early diagnosis and come up with a treatment plan with your vet, you’re more likely to be able to extend your pet’s life and enjoy more time with your best friend.

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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