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Kidney failure in dogs

As with humans, dogs rely on their kidneys to filter waste from their systems. When the kidneys malfunction and are not performing as they should, a dog is diagnosed with kidney failure.

What is kidney failure?

Kidney failure is defined by the kidneys' inability to effectively remove waste from blood. This waste builds up resulting in uremia and symptoms of kidney failure. Kidney failure can occur suddenly or gradually over time.

  • Acute kidney failure. Acute kidney failure has a sudden onset. If diagnosed quickly and treated aggressively it is potentially reversible.

  • Chronic kidney failure. Chronic kidney failure is the slow decline in the ability of the kidneys to eliminate waste from a dog’s body. The condition is incurable, but it can be managed with treatment.  This is more common than acute kidney failure.

What are some of the causes of kidney failure?

  • Ethylene glycol. Found in most antifreeze, prognosis is poor unless treated promptly after ingestion..

  • Ureteral obstruction. Most commonly caused by a urolith (urinary stone) that results in restriction of urine flow.

  • Lyme disease. This disease is carried by ticks and can result in chronic kidney failure for dogs.

  • Heart conditions. These conditions can reduce blood flow to the kidneys, which results in failure.

  • Hereditary and congenital conditions. Your vet will warn you if a condition your dog has been diagnosed with has the potential to cause kidney failure. You can then be aware of the symptoms should they develop.

  • Aging. Sometimes, chronic kidney failure is idiopathic, and may be part of the natural aging process.

What are the symptoms of kidney failure?

If you notice any of the following, your dog needs to see a vet as soon as possible.

  • Increased thirst. You will usually see your dog drinking more, or notice you are having to refill their water bowl more frequently.

  • Increased urination and “accidents”. It might be worth keeping a note of how often you have to let your dog out to urinate. If this seems excessive, it’s a cause for concern. If your older, house-trained dog is suddenly having accidents in the house, kidney problems may be to blame.

  • Decreased urination. Yes, kidney problems can also lead to less urination than usual. If you notice this symptom, then your dog likely needs to see a vet as an emergency— the inability to urinate is very serious indeed.

  • Lethargy. Lethargy in and of itself is concerning, but in conjunction with the above, could be indicative of kidney issues.

  • Bad breath. Among other things this could be indicative of kidney issues.

  • Decreased appetite. When a dog’s kidneys fail, toxins such as ammonia and nitrogen can build up in their bodies. This, in turn, can cause nausea, vomiting, and/or a decreased appetite. This condition is known as uremia, and it is directly related to kidney failure.

  • Other symptoms of uremia. These symptoms include weight loss, diarrhea and weakness.

If you notice any of the symptoms above, a vet visit is essential.

How is kidney failure treated?

Acute kidney failure treatment includes addressing the underlying cause, if known. For example, antibiotics are used for an infection or specific antidotes may be available in cases of accidental poisoning. The kidneys may be supported using dialysis, which helps to remove toxins from the blood. Without treatment, acute kidney failure is fatal.

Chronic kidney failure is treated primarily through changes in diet, fluid therapy, and various medications on an outpatient basis. Chronic kidney failure is terminal, but not immediately fatal. For dogs chronic kidney failure tends to progress over months to years.  

What can I do to prevent kidney failure in my dog?

  • Ensure that your dog drinks plenty of water, especially if they have been physically active.

  • Restrict access to toxins.

  • Regular veterinary exams and lab work, especially in older or high risk dogs

  • Do not breed dogs with hereditary causes of kidney failure

Hopefully the guide above has provided some insight into the realities of kidney failure in dogs. If you notice any of the symptoms as described above, then it is advisable that you use your pet insurance and take your dog to visit a vet as soon as possible.