Acute and Chronic Kidney Disease in Cats – How to Recognize the Signs

As pet parents, we want our beloved kitties to be healthy and live as long as possible. Despite the prevalence of chronic kidney disease in older cats, some steps can be taken early in a cat’s life to reduce the risk of developing this disease. It is important to understand the difference between acute and chronic kidney disease in cats, the factors that contribute to the disease’s development, and the importance of scheduling regular exams—despite your kitty’s unwillingness to comply with a trip to the veterinary office.

Kidney disease in cats: Acute and Chronic

An acute disease is an illness that develops suddenly but improves with proper care and treatment. The most common cause of acute renal failure in cats of any age is poison. Poisons include plants that are toxic to cats, human medications, cleaning products, and fluids like antifreeze, insecticides, or pesticides. Additional causes of acute renal failure include a blockage that affects the flow of urine—usually associated with male cats—a virus or infection, rapid dehydration, or trauma.

Chronic disease develops slowly and becomes worse over time; unless caught earlier, a chronic disease is not usually curable. This form of kidney disease is often difficult to treat effectively. One in three cats is at risk for developing chronic kidney disease, also known as chronic renal failure (CRF). The chance of developing chronic kidney disease in cats increases with age. A report published by the International Renal Interest Society (IRIS) states that CRF is “diagnosed in 80% of the geriatric cat population.”

Unfortunately, the challenge for pet owners is that the disease often reaches advanced stages before symptoms are noticeable. In addition, cats are notorious for hiding sickness—a trait developed as a form of protection in the wild. However, because CRF tends to develop over time, regular veterinary checkups, including bloodwork, can help diagnose and treat the disease early for an improved prognosis.

Pet parents can reduce the chance of their cat developing chronic kidney disease by better understanding CRF and the factors that may contribute to the development of the condition.

What is CRF?

For people and pets alike, the kidneys act as filters. Keeping the focus on felines, a cat’s kidneys filter waste from the body, produce beneficial hormones, and move proteins, vitamins, and minerals into the bloodstream.

As CRF progresses, kidney tissue and function in cats begin to deteriorate which results in:

  • an inability to produce dilute urine
  • abnormal blood pressure
  • anemia

Severe symptoms can include increased thirst, increased urination, low appetite, lethargy, and weight loss.

Why is chronic kidney disease in cats prevalent?

Conditions leading to the development of CRF include:

  • Infections and blockages. While these conditions are usually acute, untreated infections or repeat blockages can slowly damage kidney function resulting in eventual renal failure.
  • Thyroid conditions
  • Advanced dental disease
  • Cancer
  • Diet

Yes, a cat’s diet and nutrition are leading causes of CRF. Cats typically don’t drink a lot of water, so diet plays a role in making sure cats are properly hydrated and healthy. A diet consisting of only dry kibble is the biggest culprit. The body requires water for digestion, so a meal of dry kibble will result in the body pulling water internally. Rapid dehydration can create an acute condition, but a continual state of dehydration can wear down the kidneys. A diet of only—or mostly—dry food can be a major factor in the development of CRF since cats don’t drink enough water to remain properly hydrated.

Signs of kidney disease in cats

  • Drinking more water than usual: cats don’t experience thirst as we know it. When a cat reacts to thirst by drinking a lot of water, that’s an important sign that should not be ignored.
  • Repeated bladder or kidney infections: Infections develop easily in dilute urine.
  • Frequent urinating, especially outside of the box: As kidney function diminishes, the bladder can no longer hold the urine.
  • Lethargy or weakness
  • Mouth ulcers or a dry coat

As your cat ages, regular veterinary exams and dental care are important in identifying health concerns early. Your veterinarian should also discuss your cat’s diet and nutrition to reduce the risk of health factors like obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, dental disease, and dehydration that can lead to more serious illnesses like cancer or CRF. If you notice any signs of kidney disease, have your cat seen by a veterinarian immediately.