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14 Signs of Kidney Failure in Dogs

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Our dogs’ health resembles our own in more ways than we may realize. Dogs develop many of the same health conditions that we do, including kidney failure.

A dog’s kidneys work hard to keep the body healthy, carrying out such functions as regulating electrolyte levels and filtering out waste from the blood. A cascade of health issues can develop when the kidneys fail, making dogs quite ill.

Recognizing the signs of kidney failure and knowing what to do next will help you get your dog the help they need when their kidneys stop working.

Kidney Disease Vs. Kidney Failure in Dogs

Let’s first differentiate kidney disease from kidney failure.

You can think of kidney disease and kidney failure as being at different points along the same continuum of kidney problems.

Kidney disease describes a condition when the kidneys aren’t working well but are still functional. The kidneys are designed to have a lot of reserve capacity. Kidney disease usually doesn’t become apparent until approximately 70% of kidney tissue is damaged.

Kidney failure is the end point of kidney disease when the kidneys are no longer functional and there is no reserve capacity to keep the kidneys working.

Types of Kidney Failure in Dogs

Kidney failure in dogs is classified as acute or chronic. 

Acute kidney failure occurs suddenly and is usually due to infection or toxins. Chronic kidney failure occurs gradually and is most commonly due to old age-related deterioration of the kidneys.

14 Signs of Kidney Failure in Dogs

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The kidneys’ functions are so widespread that their failure affects the entire body. Body systems affected by kidney failure include the digestive system, urinary tract, and nervous system.

The symptoms of kidney failure in dogs occur suddenly with acute kidney failure and gradually with chronic kidney failure. With chronic kidney failure, the symptoms take so long to develop because the kidneys have had time to compensate for the damaged kidney tissue.

In both cases, a tool like the GreatPetCare app can help pet parents monitor and detect important signs of kidney failure quickly. The Health Journal feature makes it simple to log and share key details about changes to your dog’s health, which can play an important role in early detection and timely treatment.

Here are the symptoms of kidney failure to watch out for, according to body system:

Digestive System Symptoms

The kidneys rid the body of a waste product called urea. With kidney failure, urea accumulates in the blood (‘uremia’), leading to various problems in the gastrointestinal tract.

These GI symptoms include 

  • Vomiting, with or without blood
  • Diarrhea
  • Reduced appetite
  • Bad breath
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Dark, tarry stool
  • Bleeding gums

Urinary Tract Symptoms

The kidneys produce urine, which flows from the kidneys, through the ureters, and then to the bladder. With kidney failure, urine production becomes abnormal, leading to either too much or too little urine being produced and subsequent changes in thirst.

You may notice these urinary signs as part of kidney failure:

  • Increased or decreased water intake
  • Increased or decreased urination

Nervous System Symptoms

When the kidneys can no longer filter out waste from the blood, the accumulation of these waste products in the blood can affect the nervous system.

Nervous system symptoms associated with kidney failure in dogs include:

  • Lack of coordination
  • Seizures
  • Depression

General Symptoms

In addition to the signs listed above relating to the digestive tract, urinary tract, and nervous system, pet parents may notice more general signs including:

  • Lethargy
  • Significant weight loss

Not all dogs with kidney failure will experience all signs of the disease.

What to Do If You Notice Signs of Dog Kidney Failure

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If you do notice signs of kidney failure in dogs, take them to your veterinarian. Your dog will need emergency veterinary care if these symptoms occur suddenly, possibly indicating acute kidney failure.

A detailed history and physical examination, along with diagnostic testing, will help your veterinarian determine what caused your dog’s kidney failure. Diagnostic tests include blood work, urinalysis, imaging (e.g., X-rays, ultrasound), and blood pressure measurement.

Once your veterinarian has identified the underlying cause, you will work with your veterinarian to decide the best path forward for treating and managing your dog’s kidney failure.

Treatment options depend on the underlying cause and whether the kidney failure is acute or chronic.

Acute kidney failure is reversible but requires early and aggressive treatment. If acute kidney failure is not caught early enough, the kidneys may be damaged beyond repair.

Chronic kidney failure is not reversible and requires lifelong management, which can be expensive and challenging.

Consider several factors when deciding on a treatment plan for your dog:

  • Your dog’s age and overall health
  • Level of care that is required
  • Cost of care
  • Prognosis

Suppose you decide to move forward with treatment. In that case, your veterinarian will recommend the most appropriate treatment plan to take the burden off your dog’s kidneys, relieve symptoms, and improve quality of life.

If you decide not to pursue treatment for your dog, consider discussing end-of-life options with your veterinarian. Euthanasia (humane death) is rarely an easy decision, but your veterinarian can help you understand the process. They can also discuss hospice care to keep your dog comfortable in their final days.

At any point during treatment, you may decide to discontinue if your dog is not responding to the treatment and has a reduced quality of life.

Bringing It Together

Kidney failure is a major illness for dogs, and its treatment and management can be intensive and expensive.

If your dog has kidney failure, work with your veterinarian to help your dog feel better and achieve the best possible quality of life.