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The Deadly Disease 1 in 3 Older Cats Get — and How to Spot It Early

Jane Harrell specializes in helping pet-focused businesses connect to their clients, enhance customer loyalty and become industry leaders – all while making a tangible difference for pets and their families. Prior to becoming President o...

Kidney disease in cats isn't a death sentence, but you need to catch it early on

The good news: Cats are living longer than ever. “The average lifespan of a cat in the U.S. is now around 15 years, up from single digits just a few decades ago, and an estimated 20 percent of cats are at least 11 years old,” writes Cari Romm of New York Magazine.

The bad news: Many cat parents understand our cats are masters of disguise, but did you know that extends to your cat’s health as well? It’s scary to think our beloved fur balls have any health issues we can’t see, but veterinarians agree — cats often won’t show obvious signs of illness until it’s severe.

Worse, cats typically go to the vet less than half as often as their dog counterparts, leaving lots of time for illnesses to go unchecked.

More: 9 of Your Most Pressing Cat Health Questions Answered

(Check out these five oddball ways your cat might be telling you something’s wrong.)

Kidney disease and cats: An all-too-common unseen threat

A perfect example is the case of kidney disease in older cats (often referred to as kidney failure). According to Today’s Veterinary Practice, an estimated 30 to 50 percent of cats 15-plus years old have the chronic form of kidney disease.

Similar to humans, cat’s kidneys are designed to filter the blood and remove impurities from the system. Without the proper function of this vital system, waste can accumulate and become stored in the cat’s body instead of being eliminated as urine. However, the onset of visible symptoms for kidney disease in cats is often late in the disease, and loss of kidney function is typically permanent according to Dr. Celeste Clements DVM, DACVIM of the Pet Health Network.

Types of kidney disease: Acute versus chronic

It’s important to note that there are two distinct types of kidney disease:

  • Acute kidney injury
  • Chronic kidney disease

Though symptoms and signs may be similar, acute onset involves a sudden reduction in kidney function, whereas chronic kidney disease occurs over longer periods of time.

More: How Much Does It Actually Cost to Own a Cat?

Causes of kidney disease

Exact causes of kidney disease in cats — acute or chronic — can vary. One seen far too often in younger cats is when kitty’s been nibbling on the nice lilies you got for your birthday. (Note: Lilies are extremely toxic to cats and you should call your vet immediately if you see signs that your cat’s been snacking on them.) But other causes can range from something hereditary to an infection to a blockage or even cancer.

“When we diagnose kidney failure, we still have work to do,” writes Christie Long, a veterinarian with PetCoach in her article "6 Things You Should Know About Kidney Disease In Cats." “We don’t know yet what caused the kidneys to be damaged (and thus fail). Knowing the cause helps us figure out what the prognosis for recovery is, along with how to treat the patient.”

Detection of kidney disease

So, clearly, detecting kidney disease as soon as possible could be life-saving. In fact, the vet-focused publication, Veterinary Practice News, stated the following in its 2015 article on the trickiness of kidney disease in cats:

"Since chronic kidney disease is common in elderly cats, the importance of screening cannot be overstated, said Jessica Quimby, DVM, Ph.D., a faculty member in small animal internal medicine at Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“'Early diagnosis has been associated with longer survival,' said Dr. Quimby, a member of the American Association of Feline Practitioners."

This is where the importance of those regular trips to the vet comes in. Only a veterinary professional can properly diagnosis kidney disease early. The International Renal Interest Society’s 2015 staging guidelines recommend using the symmetric dimethylarginine (SDMA) test to diagnose stage 1 chronic kidney disease (the earliest form).

For older cats, a full senior blood panel (that includes the biomarker SDMA) and urinalysis can detect a number of hidden maladies before you’d otherwise notice symptoms. From there, you have the best chance to combat or slow the progress of the disease.

More: Are Cat Sneezes Normal or Cause for Concern?

Treatment of kidney disease

Once detected, treatment of kidney disease in cats depends on the underlying cause, as does the prognosis. However, no matter the cause, your veterinarian will likely recommend ways to help your cat stay hydrated and may suggest a special diet.

Tips for getting kitty to drink more fluids

“Keeping cats hydrated is essential to their kidney health,” writes veterinary technician Debi Matlack of PetCoach. Check out her tips for encouraging your cat to drink up.

Have a question about keeping your kitty’s kidneys healthy? Ask a vet on PetCoach.

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