Aging pets are more likely to develop many diseases and conditions, including chronic kidney disease (CKD), than their younger counterparts. Traditionally, this progressive condition was not diagnosed until pets began showing clinical signs in the late disease stages when treatment was too late to effectively slow disease progression. Now, a new test has been developed that allows the Liberty Veterinary Hospital team to diagnose kidney disease earlier and significantly increase treatment success. Here is an overview of CKD diagnosis and treatment in pets.

What is chronic kidney disease in pets?

Like people, pets have two kidneys that serve many essential bodily functions. Kidneys filter waste products from the blood, conserve fluids, minerals, and other necessary blood and body substances, and produce hormones that influence blood cell production. Pets with poor kidney function slowly decline as their overall health worsens, and death may be the result. 

Chronic kidney disease is most often associated with aging and usually starts in middle or older age, although CKD can begin early in life in pets born with a congenital or inherited problem, such as polycystic kidney disease, which can also occur in humans. Most pets do not show evidence of an underlying CKD cause, because the disease may develop months or years after an inciting event. However, possible causes can include:

What are chronic kidney disease signs in pets?

When CKD begins, individual kidney cells start to fail and die, so the remaining cells are required to work harder to maintain overall function. The remaining cells can hide the problem well for a while, and pets will not show outward signs until two-thirds to three-quarters of kidney function has been lost. Signs include:

  • Weight loss
  • Bad breath
  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Decreased appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Mouth sores
  • Retinal bleeding or blindness caused by high blood pressure

How do veterinarians diagnose chronic kidney disease in pets?

Veterinarians diagnose CKD in pets by interpreting multiple test results that they also use to stage the CKD (i.e., to determine disease severity based on International Renal Interest Society (IRIS) guidelines). Kidney disease can fall into stages one through four, with several substages in between. 

Tests used to diagnose and stage CKD may include:

  • Blood chemistry profile
  • Complete blood count
  • Urinalysis
  • Urine culture
  • Abdominal X-rays
  • Kidney ultrasound
  • Blood pressure measurement

What are chronic kidney disease treatment options in pets?

Treatment effectiveness depends on an individual pet’s CKD stage. Early stage treatments focus on slowing down CKD progression by reducing the kidney’s workload through specially balanced prescription diets and supplements. Later-stage treatments focus on supporting hydration, relieving nausea, and controlling complications such as high blood pressure and urinary protein loss.

Treatments may include:

  • Veterinary prescription kidney health diet
  • Potassium supplements
  • Phosphate binders
  • Subcutaneous fluids administered at home or the veterinary hospital
  • Anti-nausea medications
  • Appetite stimulants
  • Blood pressure medications

How can early diagnosis affect chronic kidney disease outcomes in pets?

Pets have a better prognosis if their CKD is diagnosed during stages one or two rather than in stages three or four. However, many pets are not diagnosed until the late stages when they begin to show clinical signs—early stage CKD pets look and act normal at home, and caregivers do not realize that anything is wrong. Our team strongly emphasizes the need for early diagnosis, because we know we can give these pets many more healthy years, while those diagnosed later have significantly shorter survival times.

In the past, veterinarians relied on two blood markers (i.e, BUN and creatinine) and urine concentration to diagnose kidney disease, but these markers, like the clinical signs, are not noticeably abnormal until it’s too late for meaningful intervention. In recent years, however, a new test called symmetric dimethylarginine (SDMA) that detects early CKD has been developed and is now included in all routine blood chemistry profiles. The SDMA test allows us to diagnose and save more pets from this chronic disease.

The SDMA test is best used as a screening tool, and we recommend that all adult and senior pets undergo annual wellness blood and urine testing to detect early kidney changes and other chronic diseases. We also use SDMA testing as a marker to measure your pet’s progress and guide our long-term treatment decisions.

Routine health screenings and wellness examinations with the Liberty Veterinary Hospital team are the best ways to detect CKD and other chronic diseases in their early stages, when they are most responsive to treatments. Contact us to schedule a wellness visit and disease screening or with questions about CKD in your aging pet.