Dog Kidney Failure - Causes, Prevention and Treatment

If you are wondering how many kidneys dogs have, the answer is two. The kidneys of dogs are located along the spinal column and within the abdomen, above the bladder. Like humans, dogs can survive on one functioning kidney if needed.

It is estimated that possibly 1 in 10 dogs suffer from chronic kidney disease (CKD) over a lifetime. This makes kidney disease a major cause of death especially in older dogs, as the problem is only detected by their owners when the kidneys are already down to 30% capacity.

Awareness about the causes, signs and prevention of kidney disease is therefore crucial. 

Reasons For Kidney Disease In Dogs

Needless to say, a dog’s kidney performs various functions. These functions include filtering the blood of toxins and waste products thereby removing it via urine. A hormone required for the creation of red blood cells is also produced by the kidneys. 

Kidneys help to digest calcium and vitamin D for strong bones. Additionally, this crucial organ regulates minerals; for example, keeping phosphorus levels balanced. 

Toxins in the blood will build up without functioning kidneys and this will lead to further sickness in your dog. The malfunctioning of kidneys is known as kidney failure, also known as renal failure. 

Kidney failure is a commonly misunderstood term - it does not necessarily mean complete failure of the kidneys. Rather, kidney failure means mere ill-functioning of the kidneys below normal performance. 

There are two kinds of kidney failure in dogs: acute kidney failure and chronic kidney failure. The causes of kidney failure in canines depend on the type of kidney failure.

Acute kidney failure is a quick loss of kidney function that can happen over a few days. The causes for acute kidney failure in dogs include eating toxins or harmful substances, contaminated foods and certain medications. 

Be sure to check with your local veterinarian your dog has been under any medication that may have side effects. Acute kidney failure can also be caused by reduced blood flow or oxygen to the kidneys as well as obstacles in the urinary tracts.

Chronic kidney failure, more commonly referred to as chronic kidney disease (CKD), happens over a longer-term. Where acute kidney failure takes mere days, CKD takes place over an extended time frame. As a result, CKD in dogs is more challenging to spot and diagnose.

CKD is typically present in older dogs since it develops slowly. Most often, CKD is caused by an existing illness, birth defects or inherited genetic flaws. 

However, dental diseases have also been shown to be a leading cause of CKD in dogs. Bacteria can enter the bloodstream through an open wound in the gums or an infected tooth. This, in turn, can severely harm vital organs including the heart, liver and kidneys.

Signs of Kidney Disease in Dogs

If you are concerned about kidney disease in your dog, look out for any tell-tale signs.

  • Water consumption & quantity of urine 

The first symptom of your dog’s kidneys becoming compromised is increased  drinking of water or increased frequency and  amount of urine. This called compensated renal failure.  

When two-thirds of the nephrons in kidneys are lost, the pet will no longer be able to conserve water and the pet passes larger amounts of dilute urine. Take a urine sample to examine for any presence of blood in the urine.

  • Change in behaviour

Observe your dog for signs of depression, lethargy and inactivity. A loss or decrease of appetite is also a sign your dog is ill. Perhaps your dog has observable behaviour changes and now will not eat anything until very late in the day. Try testing to see if your dog responds as before to his or her favourite food. 

  • Change in breath and gums

Bad breath and a chemical odour from your dog’s mouth indicates a buildup of bacteria and possible oral infections. Also, check for mouth ulcers or pale gums that arise from low blood count.

  • Other physical ailments

Less common signs include weakened bones that result in bone fractures. High blood pressure can lead to sudden blindness. A dog’s skin can become itchy skin due to calcium and phosphorus depositing in its skin shows. Bleeding into the stomach or gut, or bruising of the skin may also be signs of kidney disease.

  • Vomiting & weight loss

More obvious signs of kidney disease in dogs include vomiting and weight loss. Watch to see if your dog stumbles while walking and exhibits a drunk-like manner. 

It does not necessarily mean your dog has to show all the symptoms discussed here to be diagnosed with kidney disease. The extent of symptoms can vary and could be indicative of other illnesses instead. Monitor for any of these signs in your dog and consult a veterinarian to be certain of your dog's illness.

Preventing Kidney Disease in Dogs

Where kidney disease is caused by poisoning, steps can be taken to ensure harmful substances are not digested by your dog. Overdose and toxicity will cause liver and kidney damage.  The ASPCA's Animal Poison Control Center also has a list of common household items that should be distanced from your dog.

Drug poisoning is a common yet easily preventable cause of kidney disease. Left within reach,  dogs may ingest harmful substances or overdose on medication. Pet prescription medication, especially those with added flavouring, suited for animals would be especially attractive to your dog. Hence keep any animal medication out of access from pets in your home. 

Another common form of drug poisoning is when people intentionally feed human medicines or supplements to dogs. These may have harmful side effects on canines or may not be in the appropriate dosage. 

Did you know that just  one pill of an acetaminophen or paracetamol pain reliever can cause severe organ damage in a medium-sized dog? Animals lack natural enzymes needed to detoxify and eliminate drugs made for humans so medications like ibuprofen can poison a dog.

Consult a veterinarian before feeding your dog any medication or supplement. If you find evidence your dog has torn up packaging and ingested something harmful, note down the substance and bring the dog to your veterinarian.

Keep fresh water available at all times and ensure your dog has proper oral hygiene. Regular brushing with a dog toothbrushes and toothpaste helps. Certain toys and treats that are formulated to reduce bacteria in your pet's mouth.

Treating Kidney Disease in Dogs

Kidney disease in dogs can be treated more effectively if detected at an early stage. Progress of the disease can be slowed down or altered. Early clinical diagnosis and treatment of kidney problems in dogs should be left to your veterinarian. Treatment would vary depending on whether the type of kidney failure is chronic or acute and the stage of kidney failure.

There are 4 stages of kidney failure in dogs. The stages are not used for diagnosis but rather to decide on appropriate treatment and further diagnostics.

At stage 1 and stage 2 of kidney failure in dogs, identification and treatment of primary causes such as infection or other complications is the most important. Where poisoning is involved, treatment will be to counter or remove the ingested medication or harmful substance. Other underlying causes such as infection will also be dealt with. 

There are two basic tests for kidney function: a complete urinalysis and a blood chemistry analysis. Diagnostic procedures here at these early stages may include biopsies, ultrasounds, radiography. Treatment options can include chemotherapy, special diets and inhibitor medication.

If kidney failure reaches late stages, i.e. stage 3 and 4, treatment prioritizes on reducing the severity of symptoms to improve the quality of life and reduce suffering. Kidney dialysis for dogs is only available in very limited places. Kidney transplants for dogs is a challenge due to finding donors and such surgeries are said to still be in experimental stages.

If your dog has CKD, consult your veterinarian about adopting a renal diet. A kidney support diet may contain less protein, sodium, and phosphorus, and increased omega-3 fatty acids. These diets are usually available from your veterinarian or local pet store. 

Renal diets have four key functions:

1) To control the amount of waste in the blood, 

2) To maintain fluid and mineral balance,

3) To ensure adequate nutrition and modify or slow the progression of CKD, and 

4) To reduce sodium (salt) and phosphorus in the diet to alleviate stress on the weak kidneys. 

Effects of Untreated Kidney Disease in Dogs

If a dog’s kidney issues are left untreated, the dog will ultimately have end-stage kidney failure. End-stage kidney failure is the complete shutdown of kidney functions and this is fatal.

To put it briefly, early detection is key to increasing chances of survival. Acute kidney problems in dogs often arise from preventable causes so prevention is better than cure. CKD progresses over the long-term and may develop from birth defects, poor genes, infections and so on. 

Maintain good oral hygiene in your dogs by brushing regularly and invest in nutritional dog food.

Observe your dogs for any symptoms, and consult a veterinarian if you suspect kidney problems. Treatment and diagnostic tests depend on the type and stages of kidney failure. 

References

Brown SA. Management of chronic kidney disease. In Elliott J, Grauer GF (eds): BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Nephrology and Urology, 2nd ed. Gloucester (UK): BSAVA, 2007, pp 223-230. [Accessed 17 July 2020]

WebMD Veterinary Reference from ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist. “Kidney Problems in Dogs”. Available at: https://pets.webmd.com/dogs/kidney-problems-in-dogs#1 [Accessed 17 July 2020]

Gregory F. Grauer, “Treatment Guidelines for Chronic Kidney Disease in Dogs & Cats (online)”  “Available at https://todaysveterinarypractice.com/treatment-chronic-kidney-disease-dogs-cats/ [Accessed 17 July 2020]

Cecilia de Cardenas, March 2019. “Drug Poisoning in Dogs (online). Available at: https://www.petmd.com/dog/emergency/digestive/e_multi_drug_poisoning [Accessed 17 July 2020]

By Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, “Nutrition for Dogs with Chronic Kidney Disease”.Available at: https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/nutrition-for-dogs-with-chronic-kidney-disease#:~:text=When%20compared%20with%20normal%20maintenance,are%20available%20from%20your%20veterinarian. [Accessed 20 July 2020]
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