Kidney Failure In Cats: 8 Truths You Need To Know

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There is a tendency among us to think of illness in our cats as something that is short. They will fall ill; be treated; then recover. It will be a terrible, terrifying, and expensive time – but it’s not going to last for long. That’s how humans often fall unwell; we get the illness and then we get better.

This focus on the short term can mean that your preparedness for an illness in your furry friend is woefully undercooked. While, of course, you should be ready to face down a short-term acute illness that your cat has – what if they’re not going to get better? What if the illness is chronic, and you’re just going to have to figure out how to manage it?

While cats are liable to a variety of chronic illnesses, there’s one in particular that it’s valuable to spend some time learning about: kidney failure.

Cats are fairly unique as a biological entity. They are obligate carnivores, which means they have to eat meat. If you ever hear a friend extolling the virtues of their cats vegetarian diet, it’s well worth reminding them of that fact!

Cats are descended from desert creatures and need relatively little water to survive; few cats have a thirst impulse the way that humans, dogs, and other mammals do. This is perhaps why the number one most likely chronic illness to befall a cat is kidney failure.

If your cat is diagnosed with this condition – which is commonly known as Chronic Renal Failure, or CRF – then here’s everything you need to know to cope.

  1. Don’t Panic

No, seriously: don’t panic. Do not panic. This is not a death sentence.

You hear the words “kidney failure” regarding your beloved cat and, of course, you think that the world has ended. This doesn’t need to be the case at all.

Remember how cats are descended from desert animals? While the lack of thirst impulse doesn’t help their kidneys, it also means they are uniquely equipped to handle kidney failure well. Yes, well. If you put your mind to it, learn what you need to learn, and make changes to your cat’s life, then kidney failure can be managed with incredible success.

  1. Cats With Kidney Failure Live For Years

It’s true; cats can potter along with kidney failure for years and years. The ultimate goal of any owner caring for a CRF cat is to get them to a point where it’s something besides the kidney failure that ends their life; a mission a huge percentage of CRF owners reach.

CRF is usually diagnosed when only 25% of kidney function remains. Cats rarely have symptoms before they reach that level of reduction; that’s the whole “uniquely well equipped” part coming into play. If you’re thinking 25% sounds horrifyingly low, it’s still plenty – provided you make a few changes to your cat’s lifestyle.

  1. It’s Not Going To Cost The Earth

If your cat receives a CRF diagnosis, then you don’t immediately need to worry about the financial situation. While you are going to need access to some funds to help your cat, CRF is a relatively inexpensive illness to treat, with many of the treatments available over the counter. If you want to throw everything at the condition then yes, examining your financial situation or finding the right loan could be beneficial – but even the tightest of budgets is going to be able to make a meaningful difference to your cat’s life.

  1. Protein Is Not The Enemy

The immediate assumption upon a diagnosis of CRF is that protein needs to be limited, as protein is processed by the kidneys. Sadly, some vets and pet food manufacturers also subscribe to this – but it’s flawed science.

The true enemy is not protein, but a chemical called phosphorus. It’s phosphorus that you have to control. This chemical damages kidneys in scientifically proven ways, and it’s going to be a major focus for the management of your cat’s condition.

Phosphorus is best controlled by using products called phosphorus binders. Binders come in liquid, capsule, and mousse form; you simply add them to your cat’s food and the phosphorus in the food will bypass their kidneys.

This is particularly useful, as many cats with CRF don’t have much of an appetite. When faced with the unappetising renal diet foods that are on the market, they will turn their noses up without a second glance. If you use a phosphorus binder, you can use it with your cat’s normal food that they enjoy and will eat, and you help their kidneys too.

  1. Learn The Numbers (Then Forget The Numbers)

The most important part of dealing with CRF is learning the numbers. The most important kidney function number is the BUN; which stands for blood urea nitrogen. If this number is elevated, then your cat will feel more unwell and their kidneys are under strain. The BUN is used to place cats in one of four stages:

Stage 1 & 2: CRF is present, but mild at this time. CRF cats at these stages will generally be living content lives.

Stage 3: More serious and requires further intervention.

Stage 4: Treatment is an emergency situation.

Now, most cats are diagnosed at stage four unless their CRF is identified during routine testing before symptoms are present. Cats can move up and down the stages. Thousands of owners have got a Stage 4 cat back to Stage 2, thanks to improvement in their numbers.

So learn the numbers; they’re important, so you know what’s being tested. Then forget them. The majority of your treatment should focus on your cat and how they are responding. Get their numbers tested every so often to keep a check, but go on what your cat is telling you through their behaviour. That’s what counts.

  1. Control Gastrointestinal Symptoms

So you’ve got the phosphorus under control so no further damage is being done to the kidneys – now what?

The most common symptoms for CRF cats involve the gastrointestinal system, especially acid reflux. Controlling this is the key to keeping your cat healthy. Your vet should prescribe an antacid, which you can assist the efficacy of through the use of a herbal remedy called slippery elm bark.

If your cat is displaying symptoms of nausea, then consider adding an antiemetic, too.

You should also raise their food bowl. When acid problems occur, bending down to the bowl can cause discomfort – so prop their bowl up on a small perch to make eating more comfortable.

  1. Fluids

CRF cats are in constant threat of dehydration. Your vet will be able to advise you on whether their blood work suggests they need a treatment called subcutaneous fluids, which is often abbreviated to subQs.

SubQs are incredibly simple to do. Your cat won’t mind it, and you’ll find – after the first few nervous attempts – that you gain confidence with it too. Essentially, subQs involve at-home daily infusions of fluid to help stave off dehydration. Here’s a video of a cat receiving their subQs at home to show how simple it can be. Your vet will be able to advise you on how to do subQs if they feel your cat is at a stage where they will benefit, and there’s plenty of advice online to help you out.

  1. Proper Care = Happy Cat

If you can tick off the following:

  • Phosphorus binders
  • Acid control
  • Nausea control (if symptoms are present)
  • Fluids (if necessary)

… then you and your cat are in good shape. This illness is chronic; it is terminal; but it is incredibly manageable. Get it right and your purry, furry friend will be with you for a long time yet.

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