Understanding And Managing Renal Failure in Dogs

renal failure in dogs
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Just like in humans, dogs’ kidneys perform the vital function of cleansing the body of harmful toxins. Any problems with the kidneys can lead to renal failures in dogs, which remains to be a serious and often fatal illness despite the various treatment advancements recently developed.

With around 60% of dogs and cats dying or getting humanely euthanized because of kidney failure, it is highly important that pet owners are aware of this health problem so that preventive measures can be taken or early supportive care can be provided when symptoms manifest.

How crucial is a dog’s kidney?

Not only is a canine’s kidney responsible for managing the removal of toxins in the body, it also helps regulate the blood. Sugar and pH levels are kept in check. Production of red blood cells and important hormones are managed. Additionally, the blood volume, water composition and pressure are all regulated by this organ.

Hence any infection or other reasons that cause the kidney to malfunction can lead to a lot of pain for your pet, plus complications with other internal organs might arise. Studies also show that about 9 in every 1000 dogs are diagnosed with kidney problems. Simply put, kidney failure should not be underestimated and at the first sign of symptoms, treatment should be implemented with haste.

Acute and Chronic renal failure – knowing the difference

Acute renal failure refers to the sudden onset of the condition or it can be said that it developed rather quickly from being a minor kidney problem to being severe. Any dog size, breed or age can fall victim to this illness.

Acute renal failure

On the other hand, chronic renal failure is the continuing reoccurrence of the condition. Although any dog can suffer from this, older dogs seem to be the most predisposed. This might simply be because of the natural progression of the aging process and the kidney’s effectivity slowly decreases over time. Or it could be that there were already problems before which weren’t spotted and managed and so the condition has become chronic.

There are some breeds more prone to chronic renal failure – English Cocker Spaniel, Bull Terrier, German Shepherd, Cairn Terrier, and Samoyed. The condition can be hereditary as well so if you are about to get another dog, it is best to check its parents’ medical history where possible.

Symptoms to watch out for

There are various signs that point to a dog suffering from renal failure. The most common are these two:

  1. Increased water intake – clinically known as Polydipsia
  2. Frequent urination – otherwise called Polyuria

These symptoms most commonly signal a kidney failure because as the organ starts to fail, the process of flushing away waste products becomes compromised. A dog’s body will then try to compensate for the imbalance by increasing thirst levels and the need to pee. It must be noted however that in some cases, instead of frequent urination, your dog will instead have difficulty peeing (oliguria) or cannot urinate at all (anuria).

There is also a chance of nocturia happening, which in layman’s terms is the voiding of urine during the night. With that said, if you notice any problems regarding your pet’s urination habit or frequency, it is highly advisable to see your vet right away.

In depth kidney disease

Other indications that there is something wrong with your dog’s kidney include:

  • Vomiting, loose bowel movement – the internal imbalance will most certainly affect the digestive process hence these can be expected.
  • Weight loss, weakness, lethargy, Anorexia, aversion to exercise
  • Bad breath – since toxins are not getting eliminated properly, bacteria may build up in the mouth and cause halitosis.
  • Mouth ulcers – the buildup of toxic substances in the mouth may also lead to ulcerations, which usually form on the gums, tongue or inside the cheeks
  • Anemia – because the kidney is responsible for regulating the blood, any infection can lead to poor production of red blood cells.
  • Formation of pale mucous membranes on the gums – occurs because of decreased red blood cells
  • Dehydration – the constant urination might lead to this
  • Subcutaneous Edema – with the kidney failing, fluids may accumulate in the legs area which would then lead to swelling
  • Ascites – instead of in the legs area, fluid may accumulate in the abdomen and enlarge it
  • High blood pressure – as mentioned, the kidney regulates blood pressure and any problem with the organ will certainly throw a wrench into that process.
  • Loss of sight – may happen as a complication of renal failure and high blood pressure
  • Shedding of fur or hair coat loosing luster
  • Blood in urine

As you can see, renal failure in dogs is a very serious matter. Any or a combination of these symptoms should not be ignored or pushed for later. Before more complications arise, schedule a consultation with your vet right away.

What are the causes of renal or kidney failure in dogs?

There are many causes of renal failure in dogs and having at least a basic understanding of each can help any pet owner deal with the situation.

Dog with grapes-toxic

Here is a look at the various factors that contribute or lead to kidney malfunction:

  • Aging – as animals grow older, it cannot be helped that normal body functions slow down and overall health deteriorates. This is why kidney failure is highly common in aging dogs.
  • Genetic predisposition – the affliction might be hereditary and congenital.
  • Polycystic kidney disease – a hereditary disease that is, unfortunately, irreversible. This condition involves the growth of cysts which slowly replace kidney tissues and eventually cause the organ to fail.
  • Toxins – it might be that your pet has accidentally ingested harmful chemicals or other complications in the body led to the buildup of toxins in the bloodstream, which in turn causes renal failure.
  • High blood calcium – otherwise known clinically as Hypercalcemia
  • Inflamed kidney internal structures – also called Glomerulonephritis
  • Presence of kidney stones
  • Chronic urinary obstruction – this might be caused by other illnesses such as digestive problems, but if the problems in the urinary tract persist, a kidney problem often follows.
  • Lymphoma – this is a type of cancer that affects the immune system, in particular the lymphocyte cells. Although rare in dogs, this is also a serious condition and kidney issues are often one of its complications.
  • Parasites – an example is the protozoan parasite Leishmania that can be transmitted from sandflies. Once a dog is infected, main organs such as the kidney, skin and liver are severely affected.
  • Bacterial, fungal or viral infections
  • Trauma – accidents such as falls and bumps may have caused your dog to hit blunt objects or hard surfaces. This can lead to renal failure if the impacted part of your dog’s body is near or around the kidney area.
  • Medications – if not regulated properly or if dosages are not monitored, the chemicals in certain medicines may have adverse effects on your pet’s renal function.
  • Autoimmune diseases – these expose your canine to a host of harmful pathogens that may directly affect the kidney.
  • Amyloidosis – this is a condition wherein a translucent and sort of waxy substance made up primarily of protein accumulates on certain organs and compromise their efficiency. If the deposit forms on the kidney and is not remedied right away, renal failure can be expected.
  • Dehydration – when a dog is left for long without access to drinkable water, a kidney problem may occur along with other issues in the body.
  • The kidneys don’t receive enough blood – this may occur during surgery or an injury where there’s heavy blood loss. It might be that your dog has a heart problem as well and that is why not enough blood is pumped to the kidneys, causing them to malfunction.

There is a host of reasons why the disease can manifest and most in the above list are serious conditions which cannot be underestimated. Additionally, although some chronic renal failures can be treated fully, most often they are irreversible.

Dehydrated dog sings

This does not mean that there isn’t hope or that you get overwhelmed. First things first, seek the assistance of a reliable veterinarian. With his expertise and your dedication to your four-legged best friend, you can come up with various ways to manage the condition if it does occur.

Diagnosis – what to expect

The first thing to discuss with your vet is your dog’s health history; be as detailed as possible. Don’t forget to discuss diet information as well because as noted above, it may be that the cause is ingestion of toxins. The veterinarian will then have to determine if the condition is acute or chronic. This is not as straightforward as it sounds because the doctor has to make sure that there is nothing that may mask or worsen chronic renal failure. A host of exams and laboratory tests will then follow to determine causes, severity and possible treatments.

Physical exam

This is standard procedure. Your pet will be checked for signs or levels of dehydration, oral ulcers as well as bad breath. He will also be weighed and observed to confirm any other physical symptoms as outlined above.


This is a very important lab test that is expected to provide more reliable results to determine if indeed a kidney problem is present. Urine sample will be procured from your pet and several tests will be conducted such as measuring how concentrated the urine is, testing if large amounts of protein are present and conducting a centrifuge examination of any present sediments.

Complete blood count or CBC

Expect that your vet will prescribe your dog to undergo this as well since the kidney helps regulate the blood.

Dog check up blood

This laboratory test is especially useful to determine if your pet is anemic or is suffering from internal infections.

Blood chemistry analysis or chemistry panel

This involves testing a blood sample from your dog for presence of the nitrogen-containing urea compound that is a by-product of protein breakdown within in the bloodstream. Blood urea nitrogen is effectively eliminated from the body if the kidney is working well, but if not, then there will be large quantities of it in the blood stream.

The blood chemistry analysis also involves tests for Creatinine and Phosphorus. Once Creatinine levels build up to above normal levels in the blood, this signals that there is something wrong with the kidney’s filtration process. As for Phosphorus, it is meant to be excreted by the kidney into the urine, but if the organ is malfunctioning then higher phosphoric level in the blood can be seen, which is why testing for it is a good idea.

Imaging tests

This may include x-ray, radiography, ultrasound, biopsy and ultrasonography. Any or all of these may be prescribed to see the actual state of the kidney. For example, whether it is enlarged, has decreased in size or other abnormalities are developing in or around the organ.

Other tests may still be required by your vet to properly diagnose the illness. Referral to specialists may be needed too, especially for not so common complications such as in cases when cancers or tumors are involved.

What are the possible treatments for renal failure in dogs?

Treatments will be based heavily on what symptoms need immediate reprieve and, of course, the diagnosis determined by the veterinarian.

Dog survives renal failures

To give you an idea on what to expect, here are commonly administered solutions for kidney illnesses in dogs:

Fluid therapy using intravenous fluids or IV

Since the main symptoms of a kidney malfunction include dehydration, urination difficulties, vomiting and loss of appetite – it is important to rehydrate the ailing dog as soon as possible and maintain proper hydration moving forward as further tests or treatments are administered. Rehydration is done through IVs, which will typically be given in the veterinary clinic where the patient can be monitored properly.

Controlled diet

If the vomiting lessens or stops and as the dog gains back his appetite, vets often introduce a controlled diet plan at this point. Protein levels per meal will be monitored so as to regulate kidney functions.

Dog diet for Renal Failures

More often than not, the dog will be given many small meals throughout the day instead of letting him eat a lot right away; otherwise, vomiting and nausea might resume.


Depending on the progress of the patient and any other symptoms or underlying causes, medication such as chlorpromazine or cimetidine may be given. Other drugs that facilitate urine production or ease of urination may be prescribed as well.

Kidney dialysis

If your pet does not respond to regular therapies, it might be time for him to undergo dialysis, which can be done in referral clinics or veterinary schools.

Other treatments to expect

Some veterinary hospitals in the country actually offer kidney transplants for dogs, so this is one option you can consider if other treatments are not working. Surgery may also be another option. In any case, a thorough discussion with your vet is advised before committing to drastic measures.

What if the condition is irreversible?

Renal failure, especially the chronic kind, more often than not is irreversible and the prognosis is often poor (from a few months to a couple of years).

However, there are effective ways to manage the illness and hopefully extend the life of your beloved dog. These include:

  • Fluid therapy and ensuring dehydration is avoided. Your vet can teach you how to administer the needed fluids.
  • Maintaining proper electrolyte levels in the body. This can be done by adding potassium to your pet’s meals or water.
  • Monitoring the dog’s diet. Be vigilant about your pet eating and drinking the correct amounts. Any weight loss or gain can trigger dehydration and exacerbate the problem. Check with the vet as well if there are any diet changes required. The key here is to make sure that your pet is on a low protein diet but still eating high quality meals.
  • Use of appropriate supplements such as Phosphorus binders and Vitamin D.
  • Constant checks for blood pressure.
  • Use of urinary catheter to measure the volume of urine produced. Careful monitoring of urinating frequency is also advised.
  • Frequent checkups with your vet so that the condition can be monitored closely and any sudden adverse effects can be mitigated.

The severity of the kidney problem will naturally dictate the length of the prognosis. Discuss thoroughly with your veterinarian the various things you need to do to care for your dog. Lifestyle changes may be needed on your part as well to accommodate close monitoring of your pet.

Man and dog with problem

All in all, renal failure in dogs is indeed a serious problem. That is why the importance of immediate action cannot be stressed enough. See your vet immediately at the first appearance of symptoms. In fact, as early as now when this condition is not yet a problem, do your best to prevent kidney problems in your dog. Feed him healthy foods and make sure he is properly hydrated. Your vet may also have further suggestions on how to prevent this disease so do take advantage of his knowledge and advice.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.