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hard to spot: dr. ernie ward discusses the subtle signs of kidney disease in cats



“I’m spending a small fortune in cat litter.”

Ok, that was a new one. As I peered over my laptop to make certain I’d heard correctly, a cat with a shadow for a body slowly crawled from under the exam room chair. Weighing in at four pounds, less than half the normal weight of an adult cat, Screechers was in bad shape. Really bad shape.

When I see life-threateningly thin patients, several things instantly come to mind. The cat is either unable or unwilling to eat enough (pain, depression), there is a disease stealing the nutrition it is able to eat (cancer, liver, kidney), or a condition has altered the metabolism in a very cruel way (thyroid, diabetes). 

In Screecher’s case, I was looking for a disease that caused weight loss with excessive thirst and urination. Common diseases being common, I was most concerned that a cat in Screecher’s condition had hyperthyroidism, kidney failure, diabetes or feline leukemia/feline AIDS. Or some of these. Or all of them. (Yes, I’ve actually seen this and it’s not pretty.)

After a thorough exam, I recommended we begin with basic blood and urine tests. I had a feeling I knew what the results would be.

Kidney failure (also called renal failure) is an insidious disease that often kills cats before the owner knows their kitty is sick. Kidney failure is a gradual, creeping death because there is considerable redundant, or “extra,” kidney tissue. The system is designed so that you can lose up to three-quarters of your kidney function even before common blood tests can detect it. That’s well before clinical signs develop. This is also why someone can donate a kidney to a person or pet in need. Many people live perfectly normal lives with only half of the kidneys they were born with. In case you’re wondering, kidney transplants are performed in cats. But it was too late for Screechers. Way too late. 

“I don’t understand how this happened. I thought Screecher looked a little thin, but he’s also getting older. He seemed perfectly normal other than drinking more and going to the litterbox all the time.”

Kidney disease is one of those conditions that if diagnosed early, we can make simple lifestyle changes and almost always preserve a high quality of life for years. Changes in diet, fluid intake and supplements are commonly prescribed. 

When diagnosed late, as Screecher was, treatment is more complicated, expensive (unless, of course, you have pet insurance) and less successful. If I could turn back the hands of time, I probably could’ve saved Screecher’s life. 

If your feline or a cat you know is drinking more water, urinating more frequently, if you’re noticing the litterbox is more full than usual, your cat starts having accidents outside the litterbox or losing weight, see your veterinarian immediately. A few simple tests can tell you if your cat needs medical help – or if you just need to invest in more litter. 

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Chris AshtonCo-Founder and Co-CEO of Petplan Pet Insurance
vet tip of the week

Visit your vet at least once a year to keep your pet protected from preventable diseases.