Most cat lovers have been touched by kidney disease at least once in their life. I lost my beloved Freddie at age 15 to this silent killer. But a new procedure using adult stem cells to facilitate kidney transplantation in cats may help and is being pioneered by the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

Kidney failure in cats

The treatment of kidney failure in cats has traditionally been limited to changing diet, fluid therapy and a variety of medications and nutritional supplements. In the best cases, we can extend the life of affected cats by a handful of years if diagnosed early.

About 17,000 humans undergo kidney transplantation each year in the US and many enjoy a normal life expectancy after receiving their “new” kidney. In comparison, only a few cats undergo kidney transplant each year at only three transplant programs based at veterinary teaching hospitals. The low number of feline kidney transplants is primarily due to high cost, organ rejection and complications and ethical dilemmas involving the donor cat.

Cost and ethics aside, many cats are deemed poor transplant candidates. By the time kidney transplant is considered, the cat is often too ill or has developed too many complications. Organ rejection is a primary concern for many of these debilitated patients.

How stem cells may help

Researchers at the University of Georgia are pioneering the use of “adult” or mesenchymal stem cells (MSC’s) to lower the risk of organ rejection in cats, especially those at higher risk for organ rejection. This procedure is being used for the first time in feline patients after a 2012 study of humans patients. The study found those receiving adult stem cells in conjunction with kidney transplantation had lower risk of organ rejection, fewer post-operative infections and better kidney function one year later.

It looks like adult stem cells help cats in the same ways. To date, two cats have undergone the procedure and are doing incredibly well. Adult stem cells in the UGA cases were obtained from fat tissues and then “grown” in a lab for about ten days before surgery. According to the researchers, stem cells used without kidney transplantation hasn’t shown much success so far in treating chronic renal disease. Other cat candidates are currently being considered for this groundbreaking procedure.

Of course, this procedure is still quite expensive. From an ethical perspective, families of a cat that receive a donated kidney are required to adopt the donor cat, pledge to care for the donor cat for life and commit to treating both the recipient and donor cats.

Most recipient cats will require lifelong medications and injections, often twice a day, to prevent organ rejection. Stem cell therapy doesn’t eliminate anti-rejection medication. Stem-cell treatments have been used with some success in treating certain musculo-skeletal conditions, but long-term studies are lacking.

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Kidney disease in cats

Kidney disease is one of the most common causes of death in cats. I welcome any advances in battling this devastating condition. I understand that kidney transplantation may not be appropriate or possible for the majority of my patients. I appreciate these high-tech advances because I know they represent future breakthroughs that will benefit my typical patients.

If your cat is drinking more water, urinating more frequently, or inexplicably losing weight, have her checked by your vet immediately. Early diagnosis is still our best hope for extending the longevity and quality of life for cats enduring kidney failure.

Sep 5, 2014

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