Kidney Failure in Dogs: Can a dog recover from this?

A dog’s kidneys are similar to a person’s. They control the level of toxins in the blood and work as a filter to remove wastes.

They also help control other things, like blood pressure, calcium levels, and other mineral levels. When their kidneys fail, it’s usually life-threatening.

A portrait of a not feeling well dog
Close-up portrait of a Labrador dog a with a sick face

So let’s take a look at the symptoms of kidney failure in dogs, as well as the different treatments available.

What’s kidney failure?

Simply put, renal failure is when kidneys fail. For one reason or another, the kidneys stop working properly and cause all sorts of problems throughout the body.

Kidneys are in charge of many bodily functions. They balance the chemicals in the body and filter out waste as urine.

They also help regulate your blood pressure and calcium levels, as well as the water in your body. They can help you conserve water when you need to and also stimulate red blood cell production.

When a dog’s kidneys begin to fail, it cannot do any of these things.

There are many causes of renal failure. For example, renal insufficiency can cause the kidneys to function poorly and eventually fail.

This disorder is characterized by a reduction of blood flow to the kidneys, making them unable to perform their job correctly.

2 Types of Kidney Failure: Identifying Renal Failure in Dogs

There are two main types of kidney failure in dogs: acute and chronic.

Acute kidney failure is sudden and deadly, while chronic is usually caused by some underlying disease and lasts for an extended period.

Acute Renal Failure (ARF)

Also called Acute Kidney Failure, this develops when something causes the kidneys to fail relatively quickly. It has a sudden onset and is usually fixed when the underlying condition is dealt with.

This kidney failure occurs when your dog eats something toxic or takes too much medication due to an infection.

When the infection is cured, the kidney failure will end as well.

Chronic Renal Failure

Chronic Kidney Failure is a progressive disease. This is not caused by anything, but it becomes a problem over time, usually with age.

Many factors go into the development of kidney failure. Usually, there is not a direct, underlying condition. The failure of the kidneys itself is the problem.

What causes kidney problems in dogs?

Sad Labrador Retriever dog
Sad looking old Labrador Retriever dog

Several factors can cause kidney problems in dogs. These usually aren’t enough to be an issue, but they can when paired with other concerns.

For example, a dog with an infection might be more likely to get kidney failure if other factors are at play.

Things to consider if you’re dog’s suffering from kidney failure

One of the most significant factors is the amount of water your dog is consuming. If your dog is dehydrated, its kidneys will be unable to filter out all the wastes correctly.

This can put them under significant strain, which can cause kidney failure.

Here’s a list of other factors that can cause kidney failure:

  • Potassium
  • Phosphorus, calcium, and PTH
  • Acidosis
  • Sodium
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Anemia
  • Fats/lipids
  • Subcutaneous Fluids

Acute Kidney Failure

This often happens when your dog eats something he shouldn’t. A few examples include eating antifreeze, grapes, or too much of a specific drug that can lead to kidney failure.

There are also underlying conditions that can cause kidney failure, like certain cancers. Heart failure often causes other organs to fail, including the kidneys.

Blood pressure problems can also affect the kidneys since they attempt to regulate blood pressure.

Bacterial infections, like Leptospirosis, can lead to bacteria invading the kidneys and urinary tract.

Some medications can also cause acute kidney failure, but this usually only occurs when the dog takes too much. Then there are certain clotting disorders and intestinal problems, too.

Chronic Kidney Failure

Chronic Renal Failure develops or happens slowly over some time, like autoimmune diseases.

It’s where the dog’s immune system attacks the kidneys, and sometimes, other organs, as well. The damage gets worse over time, which causes them to fail eventually.

Cysts on the kidneys can grow and destroy tissue, so the kidneys will attempt to work harder as more of their tissue is destroyed, eventually leading to serious kidney problems.

Genetic conditions can also play a part in all this. Some dogs are born with improperly formed kidneys, which can cause significant problems with how their kidneys function later.

Some dogs are just more sensitive to kidney failure than other canines.

Symptoms: What are some signs of kidney problems in dogs?

There are several clinical signs of kidney disease in dogs. These will progress differently depending on the type of kidney failure.

Those with acute kidney problems will develop symptoms fast and soon have severe, late-stage symptoms. Those with chronic kidney failure will develop symptoms much slower.

Early Stages

In the early stages, it can be challenging to figure out that your dog has kidney failure. Their symptoms are usually slight and difficult to notice.

The most common symptoms are dehydration, increased water consumption, and excessive thirst.

Outdoor portrait of a Parson Russell Terrier
An outdoor portrait of a Parson Russell Terrier dog lying in front of a water dish

Because your dog’s kidneys are working very inefficiently, your dog’s body will attempt to improve the amount of toxins removed by increasing the blood flow through the kidneys.

This will result in higher levels of urine production. The filtration will continue to increase as fewer and fewer toxins are removed each time.

Eventually, this can cause the dogs to become dehydrated since they’re losing more fluids to urine.

This leads to increased thirst and drinking, which is one of the first symptoms you may notice.

The symptoms usually go from minor to severe quickly. After ⅔ of the kidney cells are destroyed, the toxins in your dog’s bloodstream will suddenly rise rapidly. This will lead to the sudden onset of late-stage kidney failure.

Late Stages

The late stages are when the symptoms become more apparent and worrisome.

This can be only a few hours after your canine has eaten the toxic product, or it can be months if they have a chronic condition.

Lethargy and general depression are usually one of the first late-stage symptoms. Your dog will simply not be feeling like themselves and will lay around more than they usually do.

They also seem unexcitable and just generally like they don’t feel good.

A loss of appetite is also common, and your dog may vomit, as well. In severe cases, they may stop urinating altogether or stop urinating as much as they might otherwise.

The amount of urine will increase towards the beginning of the disease and then decrease after that.

Seizures are common in severe cases. Usually, this is in the very late stages of kidney failure. Weakened bones are also possible and may result in bone fractures over time.

High blood pressure can lead to sudden blindness. These are all symptoms that occur when the disease is very severe. Usually, dogs are already at the vet at this point.

Watch out for these other symptoms

Here are other indicators of kidney failure in dogs that you should keep an eye on:

  • Chemical odor of the breath
  • Weight loss
  • Blood in urine
  • Diarrhea 
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Pale gums
  • Stumbling, acting drunk
  • Weakened bones can result in bone fractures
  • Itchy skin from calcium and phosphorous depositing in the skin
  • Bleeding into the stomach or gut or bruising of the skin

Acute renal failure has some other unique symptoms. Dogs may experience frequent urination or absolutely no urination depending on how their kidneys react to the toxins or underlying condition that is bothering them.

A stiff-legged gait and an arched back is a sign that your dog’s kidneys may be painful, which causes them to walk weirdly.

Chronic kidney failure’s symptoms can cause increased urination, as is bleeding and bruising easily.

Usually, other symptoms will be signs of what exactly is causing the kidney failure to begin with.

How is Chronic Kidney Failure diagnosed?

Beagle being checked up by the veterinarian
A Beagle dog being checked up by a Vet

Chronic kidney failure is usually diagnosed by running a blood test. Your vet can determine the amount of functioning your dog’s kidneys have by reading the levels of certain chemicals in your dog’s blood.

A urinalysis may also be used. With normal kidney function, your dog’s kidneys should not contain any blood or protein.

However, dogs undergoing kidney failure will often include these things. They’re signs that their kidneys are not functioning properly. Low urine specific gravity is mostly the first sign of kidney failure.

A blood biochemistry test will also be used. This assesses the function of internal organs by measuring the products in your dog’s blood.

Blood urea nitrogen and blood creatinine are usually both high when the kidneys are failing.

Tests may also include albumin, globulin, potassium, sodium, phosphorus, calcium, and red and white blood cell counts to help determine the best treatment going forward.

X-rays and ultrasounds can help determine why the kidneys are struggling. Sometimes, there is no underlying cause. It can simply be the dog’s kidneys wearing out. Other times, there is an underlying cause.

A dog in the early stages of kidney failure will likely have normal levels of most substances, but their low urine specific gravity will be low.

When the kidneys are no longer working effectively, the blood levels of waste products will rise.

How will my veterinarian determine the degree of Kidney Failure in my dog?

The International Renal Interest Society (IRIS) has developed a staging system for kidney disease.

This will be determined based on the level of abnormalities spotted in the tests your vet runs while taking your dog’s symptoms into account as well.

A low blood count can determine anemia without symptoms. Increased waste in the blood is also a sign, usually determined by blood urea nitrogen and creatinine levels.

Abnormalities that are often seen on diagnostic blood and urine tests include:

  • anemia without signs of a response by the body to the low blood count (non-regenerative anemia)
  • increased wastes that are typically removed by the kidneys (blood urea nitrogen [BUN] and creatinine)
  • calcium is often normal but can be elevated in some pets with CKD and rarely is decreased
  • diluted urine
  • +/- protein or bacteria in the urine
  • Increased phosphorus

Details About Staging

There are different stages of kidney failure. Stage 1 usually doesn’t involve any symptoms at all.

You won’t notice that your pooch is in distress, as their kidneys are still mainly functioning correctly – they’re just struggling a bit.

Stage 2 is defined as “mild.” There aren’t many symptoms, but your dog may have things like increased urination. Stage 3 is moderate, while stage 4 is severe.

Usually, your vet can determine the stage by the amount of creatinine in your dog’s blood. This is the most accurate way to determine the current stage. However, other symptoms may need to be taken into account as well.

Treating Kidney Failure in Dogs

Labrador dog being treated in the veterinary clinic
A sick Labrador Retriever dog being treated in the veterinary clinic

Both types of kidney failure can be treated. How they are treated varies considerably depending on whether it is acute or chronic, then hospitalization is usually required.

Acute vs. Chronic

Acute kidney failure is sometimes curable when the underlying cause is treated.

For instance, if your pooch consumed a toxic plant, their kidneys may return to normal after the toxin is removed from their system.

IV fluids are used to ensure that your pet remains hydrated. It also helps the kidneys work better by flushing the toxins.

With more liquids, the kidneys can work more effectively. Medications may be necessary depending on what’s causing the problem. 

If the pet refuses to eat, it may need to be temporarily fed through a tube. This is particularly true if they’re lethargic for a few days.

Monitoring is crucial during treatment. Blood pressure, weight, and blood tests will likely all be monitored regularly.

Chronic kidney failure is a little more complicated, as it’s more of a wearing-out process. Organ transplants in dogs are not always successful, so they can’t be cured.

It can only be managed, and the symptoms lessened. This type is progressive and tends to get worse with time. With the proper treatment, this can be lowered, though.

The exact treatment of kidney failure depends on the results of the blood test. Most treatments will be aimed at solving the particular abnormalities.

Sometimes, the kidneys are too damaged, and treatment is unhelpful. During these circumstances, euthanasia is used.

Early diagnosis is essential for treating chronic kidney failure. The first phase of treatment involves diuresis, which is a process that flushes the kidneys and helps mildly damaged kidney cells function again.

This creates a healthier environment for the other cells to heal and may be enough treatment if plenty of functional kidney cells remain.

Fluid therapy may also be necessary to help restore electrolytes and increase hydration.

After the first phase of treatment, the plan switches to management. A therapeutic diet is usually needed to minimize the work of the kidneys. The preferred diet is one that is low in protein and phosphorus.

A phosphate binder is necessary to remove phosphorus from the body. The kidneys may not be able to do this completely when damaged.

Fluid treatment may need to continue at home, but you may be able to decrease this treatment over time.

If protein is in your dog’s urine, therapy will be necessary to treat it. Depending on your dog’s test results, other drugs may be necessary as well.

For example, if your dog’s calcium level does not improve, a drug specifically targeting calcium may be required. Calcitriol is a common drug that increases calcium absorption.

While dialysis is usually offered for humans, this is not a treatment option for dogs.

What happens if Kidney Problems go untreated?

If a kidney problem goes untreated, death is likely to occur quickly. With kidney failure, the problems start to compound.

The kidneys can’t function, so more toxins build up in the blood, making it harder for the kidneys to function.

How can Kidney Problems be prevented?

Keeping your canine away from toxic items can help avoid acute kidney failure. Put anything that may harm them away where they can’t get it.

If you have plants inside and outside of your home, be sure they’re safe in case your dog tries to eat them.

When providing them with medication, be sure to give the correct dosage and stay on the lookout for side effects.

If Fido gets sick, seek medical care right away. This will prevent infections and bacteria from traveling to the kidneys, which can potentially cause all sorts of problems.

Chronic kidney failure can never be prevented entirely. Your dog’s kidneys must function, and they may become damaged by doing so.

Work on your dog’s diet

Dog drinking water from a metal bowl
Beagle dog drinking water from a metal bowl at home

Ensure that your pet always has access to clean, fresh water to prevent them from becoming dehydrated, which can lead to more kidney damage.

Choose a high-quality diet so that the kidneys don’t have to work extra hard to remove all the waste in your pet’s bloodstream.

In cases where your pet already has kidney failure, your dog may need a protein-restricted diet.

Regular vet visits can help catch kidney failure before it becomes too serious. This can help your canine start treatment earlier, which usually results in better results.

Life for Dogs with Kidney Failure

Dog checking food from the refrigerator
A dog checking foods from the refrigerator

With the proper treatment, most dogs can live a full life with kidney failure. Many dogs live like normal if it’s caught early, though they may have certain dietary restrictions.

You‘ll need to actively manage your dog’s kidney function through a specific diet and other medications. Believe it or not, it’s quite inexpensive and easy.

Understanding Your Dog’s Risk

You should understand your canine’s risk for kidney failure or more severe kidney failure. Talk to your vet about what you should be avoiding in your dog’s diet and lifestyle.

Your vet will often inform you not to feed your dog supplements or treats, as these can make your dog’s kidneys work extra hard.

Furthermore, carefully feed your canine the food your vet recommended. Often, dogs with kidney failure will need a restricted protein diet, as their kidneys may be unable to effectively remove protein from their blood.

A restricted protein diet helps lessen the amount of work your dog’s kidneys need to do.

The Prognosis

The possible outcome for dogs with acute kidney failure depends mainly on the underlying cause and when they seek treatment. If treatment is sought early, dogs may recover quite quickly.

IV fluids and other supportive therapies can help remove toxins from your dog’s system, saving their kidneys simultaneously.

For dogs that seek treatment later, it can be a bit more complicated. Some dogs will still be fine, depending on the toxin they consumed. Other dogs will not, as their kidneys will already be too damaged.

The key to recovery from acute kidney failure is that your dog’s kidneys need to be functional enough to remove the toxins with some help and not so damaged that they cannot remove the toxin effectively.

If the toxin is not removed, it will continue to damage the kidneys.

This is typically cyclical. Dogs with damaged kidneys will be unable to remove the toxin effectively, further damaging the kidneys.

Once again, how long it takes your dog to reach the vet matters. The early stages of CKD are very treatable and often only need minor treatments.

These dogs will live pretty normal lives. They will not be bothered too much by their new diagnoses, though they may need some dietary restrictions.

Those with late-stage kidney failure will usually need more treatment, and different medications may be necessary. It can help counteract the waste products and symptoms in your dog’s blood.

Dietary restrictions will practically always be needed.

Usually, it’s not the kidney failure directly that will lead to the dog’s death, but something else made worse by the kidney failure.

For example, dogs with kidney failure are often unable to undergo surgery, which can be a problem if they need surgery for some reason. This makes pet health essential.

It’s vital to keep your pet healthy when they have kidney failure. Even dental hygiene is paramount, as your dog may not be able to fight potential infections as strongly as it once did.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Sad little pug puppy lying down crying
A sad little Pug puppy, lying down crying on a fuzzy blanket

Is kidney failure in dogs painful?

Acute kidney failure can be painful. Dogs may walk with stiff legs, which will indicate that their kidneys are painful.

However, it’s not exceedingly painful. Once kidney failure is treated, the pain decreases substantially.

Chronic renal failure (CRF) is not painful when it’s under control. Usually, dogs will not experience much pain at all, though they may generally feel bad and lethargic.

They’ll feel sickly. When it’s properly managed, though, there is minimal pain or weakness or none at all.

A dog with managed chronic kidney failure often acts and feels like they are completely healthy.

Can a dog recover from kidney failure?

It depends on your definition of recovery and the type of kidney failure. Dogs with acute kidney failure can recover and regain most of their kidney function.

Acute kidney failure doesn’t always lead to a long-term problem. Many dogs go on to live complete lives with most if not all of their kidney function.

Chronic kidney failure is always going to be around. You can’t cure it. However, it can be managed. When under control, it may seem like your dog doesn’t have kidney failure at all.

They won’t completely recover since they will always have dietary restrictions and medications. However, they will otherwise go on to live their full lifespan.

How long can dogs live with kidney disease?

If it’s well managed, dogs can go on to live for months and years. It depends largely on the stage of kidney failure your dog is on, as well as how strictly they stick to their care routine.

Many dogs will go on to live for years. It’s often not the kidney failure that kills the dog, but something else that the kidney failure makes worse.

Vets will often encourage treatment in most situations since this is a disease many dogs can live with. Most canines respond well to treatment and turn back into their old selves again.

Treatment and follow-up care are generally inexpensive. Most of the time, the dog may only need a new diet that is lower in protein.

Sometimes medication is needed, but it isn’t always required for the rest of your dog’s life. Dogs who have managed kidney failure have perfect lives.

Understanding Kidney Failure in dogs makes us better pet parents

Dog posing with his veterinary doctor
A relieved dog posing with his veterinary doctor

Kidney failure can be a terrifying diagnosis for pet owners. However, it often isn’t as scary or life-threatening as it sounds. If treatment is sought early, most kidney failure is treatable.

Even chronic kidney disease, which will remain a diagnosis for the rest of your pet’s life, can be managed and minimized.

Many dogs who suffer from this type of kidney failure have no symptoms in their day-to-day lives and only need minimal treatment.

Most dogs respond well to treatment and go on to have a good quality of life.

The vital part of managing your dog’s kidney failure is to follow your vet’s directions closely. Your pooch may need a special diet.

If this is the case, they need to eat only that diet and nothing else. Medication schedules need to be followed closely as well.

If you have any experience regarding kidney failure in dogs, leave a comment below so we can help fellow pet parents with fur babies suffering from such illness.

Further reading: Other dog diseases and conditions

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