Imagine waking up one morning and noticing that your cat is ill.  He has vomited a couple of times during the night, and he is listless and has no interest in his food or water.  You gather him up and rush him to the veterinary clinic.  The veterinarian examines him, takes some blood for analysis, and informs you that your cat is in kidney failure.

“How can that be?  He was fine yesterday,” you say.
“That is how kidney failure works,” the veterinarian answers.

Statistics tell us that one in every three indoor cats will die from kidney disease. There are very few cat caretakers that have not had to go through the suffering of dealing with a cat that is in kidney failure.  Most of the time, we get little warning that our cat’s kidneys are diseased, and once the illness appears, there is little that can be done to repair the damaged kidneys.

For the past 35 years, I have treated cats with kidney disease, and I can say that there has been little change in our treatment protocols for cats with renal insufficiency.  The consensus in conventional veterinary medicine is that the most we can do for these cats is to give support for as long as possible without much hope of resolution.  However, if we are serious about a resolution, perhaps it is time that we direct our attention toward the possible causes of such a deadly disease in hopes of preventing it down the road.

Why is kidney disease in cats such a devastating disease?  It starts with the disease process, aided by insignificant diagnostic procedures, and ends with treatment that has little to do with healing the damaged kidneys.  Kidney disease can be caused by many things including infection, toxicity (poisoning), complications from other diseases, and cancer.  Some causes, such as poisoning, are responsible for rapid-onset kidney failure and can be corrected if caught in time. However, by far, the most common form of kidney disease is referred to as chronic interstitial renal disease or “kidney failure.”  Most cats that develop this kidney disease are senior cats, usually over ten years of age. The cause is still uncertain.

The progression of the disease is slow and insidious and by the time the cat gets ill, the kidneys are small and fibrotic (similar to scar tissue) and no longer have the ability to function properly.  Early symptoms might include an increase in water intake and urine output.  When illness sets in, it comes in a hurry and often resembles an acute process.  The caretaker explains that one day the cat is fine, the next day the cat is very ill.

Even though the onset for kidney disease appears rapid, chances are the kidneys have been ill for a very long time.  In spite of the chronic illness, the kidneys seem to maintain their ability to function normally up until the last phase of the disease.  Research indicates that by the time the cat gets ill and the veterinarian can diagnose the disease using laboratory testing, the kidneys will have less than 30% of their viability remaining.  So, when the cat is presented to the veterinary hospital, it is usually already in the last stages.  This is why the disease is often referred to as “kidney failure.”

The presenting symptoms at this time usually include loss of appetite, vomiting, and lethargy.  Blood work and urine evaluation will aide in the diagnosis as well as prognosis.  At that time, most cats are treated with IV fluids and medications to support the kidneys.  This usually requires several days in the hospital.  After treatment, laboratory values are re-checked to determine how the kidneys have responded to treatment.  If the results are favorable, the cat is returned to the caretaker with home care including medications, diet restrictions, and possibly fluids given under the skin.  A guarded prognosis is usually given.  On occasion, there will be caretakers who are interested in kidney transplants and the veterinarian will refer these cats to a University Veterinary Hospital such as the University of California, Davis where these procedures are done.

What Can We Do To Prevent This Disease

1.From a preventative perspective, we must first look at possible causes for this disease.  Recent research has indicated that there are a few things we can do to help prevent kidney insufficiency in cats.  One factor that has been linked to kidney disease appears to be feeding dry kibble.  The water regulatory system in the cat depends on the cat obtaining its water from its food.  Cats are not designed to go to the water bowl for their water. This is why it can be difficult to get a cat to drink.  Many caretakers have to make it a game in order to get the cat to drink: turning on a faucet, etc.

Dry kibble consists of only 10% moisture whereas the ancestral (or wholesome) diets contained about 70% moisture.  It appears that cats, eating dry kibble only, spend most of their lives sub-clinically dehydrated.  Therefore, the kidneys, which are responsible for water regulation, work overtime in order to preserve as much water in the system as possible.  The long-term dehydration and stress on the kidneys is a direct factor that predisposes chronic kidney disease.  Simply switching the cat’s diet to a canned food, or preferably, a non-processed, wholesome diet can support the kidneys throughout the cat’s life.

2. Another factor that has been linked to kidney disease points to immunizations.  Most vaccines that are given to a cat are what we refer to as “modified-live” vaccines.  The problem is that these vaccines are manufactured in a laboratory using viruses that have been modified in a way so that the cat’s body will react to form immune protection without showing symptoms of the actual virus.  For the modified viruses to live, they too require nutrition so kidney protein is often used to manufacture these vaccines.  Some researchers suggest that cats may develop auto-antibodies to kidney tissue when given these vaccines.  This means that the cat’s immune system is developing antibodies against the kidney protein in the vaccine and the cat’s antibodies soon start to attack its own kidneys.  If this is the case, we certainly want to be careful immunizing our cats.

Given the two suspected causes just mentioned, another approach to heading off chronic kidney disease in cats is to look at alternative perspectives when it comes to disease.  In my practice, I use a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective in most of my patients and it is a very good method for picking up early signs of kidney imbalance.  By identifying these imbalances before the disease has occurred, we can often alter the direction of the insidious changes and prevent the occurrence of the physical disease.  In Chinese Medicine, the kidney element (water) is one of the five elements.  The kidney is a yin organ and its yang counterpart is the urinary bladder.  The kidney is not only responsible for water regulation but is responsible for development, for bone health, for a healthy neurological system, and for hearing.  For example, patients with arthritis have an underlying kidney imbalance.  Hearing loss is also due to kidney imbalance.

To assist healing, Chinese medicine pays close attention to energy bodies. The energetic body is often referred to as the blueprint of the physical body, so if we can pick up the energetic imbalances and correct them, we often can prevent the physical manifestation of the disease.  Homeopathy, and other energy-based alternative modalities, will also do the same thing.

What can be done for the cat that has already been diagnosed with kidney insufficiency?  

Whenever we face an illness with our pet and we have run out of options or we do not like the options, then we should turn to an alternative modality in hopes of moving beyond the limitations of conventional western veterinary medicine.

When I use Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), I focus on balancing the energetic body with emphasis on the kidney function.  There are a number of acupuncture points that will strengthen the kidneys and help restore balance.  One of the many benefits of acupuncture is that it increases the blood flow to the kidneys.  I also like to use Chinese herbal formulas that strengthen the kidneys as well.  When we balance the energetic body, we direct information for the material body to heal.  I have seen many cats with chronic kidney insufficiency live way beyond their life expectancy by adding alternative treatments to the conventional western medicine treatment.

My suggestions for preventing chronic kidney disease in the cat are:

  1. Feed a wholesome, balanced diet that is not heat-processed.  Avoid dry kibble.
  2. Minimize immunizations.  I do not recommend giving core vaccines (FVRCP and Rabies) more frequently than once every three years.
  3. Avoid using any insecticides on your cat.  If you have problems with fleas or ticks, there are natural products that can be effective.

My suggestion for cats that have been diagnosed with kidney failure:

  1. Don’t believe that your cat is going to die.  Your belief system has a lot to do with your cat’s ability to heal.
  2. Follow your veterinarian’s recommendation with conventional treatment and support.
  3. Find a holistic veterinarian that can help your cat using alternative modalities.
  4. Feed a balanced, wholesome diet that is not heat-processed.
  5. Since kidney disease is so common, and often so devastating, we are wise  to look for treatments that hold true promise.

In my practice I have seen first-hand how taking a holistic approach to kidney disease can offer possibilities that standard veterinary treatment cannot.