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Kidney Disease in Older Cats: What Do I Need To Know?

At Brooklyn Bark we care for quite a few cats with kidney disease. We wondered if this was because we are one of the few companies with staff trained to administer subcutaneous fluids or if this was true in the general cat population.

We checked in with Dr. Chris Gaylord of North Slope Veterinary to find out more.

Brooklyn Bark: We see a lot of kidney disease in older cats. Is it very prevalent or do we just see a lot because we are one of the only cat sitters who all are trained to give subcutaneous fluid infusions? Dr. Chris: Yes, kidney disease is one of the most common illnesses in older cats. Dogs get kidney disease too but at a much lower rate than cats.

Kidney disease goes by many different names and abbreviations such as Acute/Chronic Renal Failure (ARF, CRF) and Acute/Chronic Renal Insufficiency (ARI, CRI). These are all different ways of saying that the kidneys aren’t working as well as they should be.

BBark: What is the difference between acute and chronic kidney disease? Dr. Chris: Acute kidney disease often has an identifiable cause, such as toxins, infection, urinary obstruction, or exacerbation of another metabolic disease. Acute kidney disease can be fatal but if it is caught in time the effects are potentially reversible. Cats with acute kidney disease are usually noticeably sick. They may be vomiting, not eating, acting lethargic, etc. It is important to seek treatment quickly in these cases. With chronic kidney disease, the type more commonly seen in older cats, we often do not find a cause and cannot reverse the damage that has already been done to the kidneys. Chronic kidney disease is the type that we will be discussing here.

BBark: What happens to a cat with chronic kidney disease? What should we look for? Dr. Chris: Simply put, the main functions of the kidneys are to filter blood and to produce and concentrate urine. When the kidney is damaged, it has difficulty filtering the blood and concentrating urine so cats with renal disease produce clear, dilute urine that looks like water. You may also notice your cat drinking a lot more water. In later stages of kidney disease the substances that should be filtered into the urine start to back up into the bloodstream and at high levels can become toxic. This can cause decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, and lethargy. Evidence of kidney disease is often noted on labwork prior to the appearance of any clinical signs in cats. That’s why it is important to perform routine bloodwork and urinalysis 1-2 times a year in cats, ideally at age 7 and over.

BBark: What are the treatments for kidney disease? Dr. Chris: Unfortunately, there is no treatment that can reverse the damage to the kidneys seen in chronic kidney disease. Conservative medical management can help to slow the progression and retain the function of the remaining healthy kidney. Most commonly this includes changes to diet, intravenous or subcutaneous fluid therapy, and medications that can help to reduce nausea and stimulate the appetite.

BBark: What diet should a cat with kidney disease be on? Dr. Chris: Most cats with confirmed kidney disease will be started on a prescription diet by your veterinarian. These diets are low in phosphorus and protein, which makes the kidneys’ job easier to do.

BBark: You mentioned subcutaneous fluids, and that is the part we see most as we care for Brooklyn cats. How do these help?

Dr. Chris: When an animal is suffering from kidney disease he is often not interested in eating or drinking. This is double trouble as dehydration puts an extra burden on the already weak kidneys. When we give additional fluid subcutaneously, it is absorbed into the blood stream, preventing dehydration and easing the kidneys' work. There is a bonus because the cat begins to feel better and other symptoms, such as not eating, ease.

BBark: What about kidney transplants or dialysis? Dr. Chris: These treatments do exist although they are rare and are not commonly performed outside of large specialty hospitals. Not all cats are good candidates for these procedures and they are generally very expensive. In cases of kidney transplant, the recipient’s owner is generally required to adopt the donor cat (usually a stray or shelter cat), so anyone considering would need to be prepared for an additional kitty.

BBark: Is there anything our Barkers can do to prevent kidney disease in their cat? Dr. Chris: Not really. It is just one of those realities many cats have to face as they age. It is suspected that diet may play a role in developing kidney disease and studies are ongoing to determine what the connection may be. As of now, there is no known diet that can prevent cats from getting chronic kidney disease. It is likely that there is also a genetic component to the development of kidney disease. The best thing to do is bring your older cat to the veterinarian at regular intervals so any kidney issues can be discovered early.

Christopher Gaylord, DVM, is the practice owner of North Slope Veterinary, 207 6th Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11217. A graduate of Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Gaylord practiced in Manhattan and Jersey City before opening his practice in Park Slope. He can be reached at To make an appointment with Dr. Gaylord, call 718-789-7170, M-F:9am-7pm or Sat: 9am-3pm. House calls available on request.

For in-home cat care, healthy or medicated, please contact Brooklyn Bark. Our entire staff is compassionate, meds trained and pet CPR/first aid certified.

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