Extreme thirst and frequent urination may be signs of kidney disease in cats. Learn why regular veterinary care is key to discovering and managing the condition.

By Kristi Valentini
August 24, 2020
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Learning your cat has kidney disease (also called kidney failure) can be alarming. After all, the kidneys are a major organ. The good news is that symptoms are often treatable, meaning it’s possible for a cat with kidney disease to still live a long, happy life. Learn how to recognize and manage the symptoms of this common condition in cats. 

How Kidney Disease Affects Cats

Kidney disease occurs when the kidneys lose some of their function. The kidneys’ primary job is to filter waste and toxins out of the blood and into the urine, but they also regulate mineral levels and trigger the production of red blood cells, which carry oxygen throughout the body. 

When the kidneys aren’t performing well, harmful substances build up in blood. Cats with kidney disease can also develop anemia, or lack of red blood cells. 

There are two types of kidney disease in cats: acute (meaning short-term) and chronic (meaning long-term). “Acute cases usually happen when a cat eats something poisonous, like antifreeze or Easter lilies, or has an infection,” says Erick Mears, DVM, DACVIM, medical director of BluePearl Pet Hospital in Tampa Bay, Florida. “But kidney disease in cats is mostly chronic. Previous infection, another disease, or an unknown cause may damage the kidneys.” 

When part of the kidney is damaged, the rest has to work harder to keep up with the body’s demands. Eventually, the extra effort wears the kidneys out, and their function further decreases. This is why chronic kidney disease gets worse over time.

Signs Your Cat May Have Kidney Disease 

Though it’s best to catch the disease at an early stage, it’s often hard for pet parents to spot the beginning signs, Mears says. After all, cats are masters at masking their weakness. Your veterinarian is more likely to detect early-stage kidney disease through routine wellness testing. Urinalysis (urine sample test) can show high protein levels, an indication of kidney problems. High blood pressure can be a red flag too. 

Chronic kidney disease usually occurs in older cats—only 10 percent of young kitties are affected. See your vet if you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Increased thirst
  • Frequent urination
  • Dull and thinning fur
  • Low energy
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Vomiting, lack of appetite, or weight loss

Managing Your Cat’s Kidney Disease

Kidney disease has no cure, and damage isn’t reversible. You can treat the symptoms to make your cat feel better. Veterinarians often recommend an approach that combines these elements:

Special Diet

One of the most important aspects of managing kidney disease in your cat is changing his diet. Your vet will suggest a prescription food. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, these diets are typically lower in protein, phosphorus, and sodium. Switching to a diet designed for kidney disease reduces the amount of waste kidneys need to clean from the blood. 

Blood Pressure Medication

Kidney disease causes high blood pressure, which in turn creates more kidney damage. High blood pressure also impacts the heart and other vital organs. Oral medications lower blood pressure so high blood pressure has less of an effect.

Hormone Therapy

Healthy kidneys play a part in making erythropoietin, a hormone that kickstarts red blood cell production. As the kidneys start to fail, your cat’s red blood cell level may drop too low (anemia). Red blood cells carry oxygen. Not having enough can make your cat extremely fatigued and weak. “If your cat is anemic, starting hormone therapy can help them drink and eat more, which will make them feel better,” Mears says. 

Keeping Your Cat with Kidney Disease Comfortable

Managing symptoms is key to making sure your cat feels good. Work with your vet to address any new concerns as they crop up. For example, cats with chronic kidney disease may feel nauseous and refuse to eat. You can ask your vet about ways to coax your kitty to eat her new food. 

Your cat also needs lots of water. Cats with kidney disease quickly become dehydrated. Make sure the water bowl is always full and consider placing multiple water bowls throughout your home for easy access. You can also offer a circulating water fountain, which may appeal to a cat who loves to lick the faucet. 

With a little extra effort, your cat can continue to live a happy life. “Cats can live for years with kidney disease,” Mears says. “It really depends on whether they’re in the earlier or later stages. But often they live for three to six years after diagnosis.”

How to Prevent Kidney Failure in Cats

To avoid bouts of acute kidney disease, keep poisonous substances out of your cat’s reach. For chronic kidney disease, take these four steps to maintain the overall health of your cat’s kidneys: 

  • Provide plenty of water to help the kidneys flush out toxins. 
  • Clean the litter box regularly to encourage your cat to urinate. 
  • Help your cat maintain a healthy weight to avoid diabetes, which can lead to kidney failure. 
  • Visit your vet at least once a year for wellness checks, when the first signs of kidney disease are often found. 

If you notice your cat drinking a ton of water, you should contact your vet. It could be a sign of kidney disease or another serious condition such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism. Catching a disease earlier is always better. With help from your vet, your kitty could live comfortably with kidney disease for years to come.