An estimated 1% of dogs and 2% to 3% of cats have chronic kidney disease (CKD)—a progressive decline in kidney function—but this number increases dramatically as pets age. Around 10% of senior dogs and up to 35% of senior cats may develop this condition. Without adequate kidney function, a pet’s quality of life can rapidly deteriorate and may ultimately lead to death. 

The Valley Center Veterinary Clinic team follows the latest kidney disease diagnosis and treatment guidelines, which allow for earlier detection and often more successful treatment. Here is a CKD overview and an explanation of why early detection can impact the disease course and outcome.

Kidney function and dysfunction in pets

Your pet has two kidneys, which are vital for maintaining many different body functions. The kidneys’ main responsibilities in your pet’s body include filtering the blood of waste products and creating urine, conserving water and protein, balancing minerals and electrolytes, and contributing to some hormonal processes, including blood pressure regulation and red blood cell development. 

People need only one kidney to function, because the kidney tissues compensate for losses and work harder to maintain a normal status. The same goes for pets—they can lose a great deal of their kidney function before things start to go noticeably awry. CKD is the progressive, often slow, kidney function loss that eventually ends in kidney failure.

Pet kidney disease clinical signs and diagnosis

CKD most commonly develops in older pets and is generally regarded as a consequence of aging, because the true causes are difficult or impossible to pinpoint. A cause may be apparent, such as an infection, cancer, hereditary disease, auto-immune disease, or a clotting issue in some pets, but most aging CKD cases start slowly and silently, with kidney damage occurring months to years before clinical signs appear. When signs occur, they include:

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Bad breath
  • Weight loss
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Unkempt haircoat in cats
  • High blood pressure, possibly leading to eye damage or blindness

Suspected CKD can be diagnosed with blood, urine, and imaging tests, which will also help to rule out other conditions that cause similar signs or cause complications during treatment. 

Pet kidney disease staging and treatment implications

CKD has various stages of severity that range from one through four, with multiple substages based on the laboratory test results. Staging your pet requires evaluation of specific parameters, including blood urea nitrogen (BUN), blood creatinine, urine protein, urine protein:creatinine ratio, and blood pressure measurement. The stage determines the treatments that will benefit your pet the most. 

CKD stages one and two, when functional and laboratory abnormalities are minimal, are the stages when pets respond best to protective treatments that reduce the kidneys’ workload and preserve their function. Unfortunately, most pets are not diagnosed until stages three or four, when they begin showing clinical signs at home, and their laboratory values are elevated. Treatments at this stage are focused on alleviating secondary symptoms like nausea, poor appetite, dehydration, high blood pressure, and weight loss.

Early detection with SDMA testing in pets

During the last decade, veterinary medicine has adopted a new test that is now used in addition to those listed above. The symmetric dimethylarginine (SDMA) test has been a game changer that allows for earlier CKD diagnosis. SDMA becomes elevated an average 17 months before other blood markers change, which allows our team to institute protective treatments and significantly slow CKD progress. Early detection using SDMA testing can provide affected pets with many additional healthy years, and represents a huge breakthrough for this disease.

How we use SDMA testing in our veterinary practice

To get the most out of SDMA testing, we recommend that all pets undergo routine wellness screening tests at least once per year and more frequently for seniors. SDMA becomes elevated when around 40% of kidney function is compromised, which can occur months or years before you see any changes in your pet at home. Once we identify early stage CKD, we will monitor SDMA every few months and implement treatment strategies, such as a special renal diet.

Pets diagnosed with late-stage CKD often have a poorer prognosis and more complications than pets diagnosed in earlier stages. Our Valley Center Veterinary Clinic team recommends annual wellness visits for adult pets and semi-annual visits for seniors to facilitate earlier CKD diagnosis and to detect other common aging changes or conditions. Contact us to schedule your furry pal’s next visit, or if you have questions about their CKD diagnosis and management.