Understanding Kidney Failure in Dogs

Kidney Failure in Dogs

Kidney failure. Those two words are enough to rock any pet owner to their very core. You wrap your arms around your dog and hold them close, fearing the worst. However, you don’t have to mourn them; kidney failure in dogs is very manageable, depending on which stage the vet caught it. 

Firstly, kidney failure (also known as renal failure) is detected through blood work. Only your vet will be able to diagnose it and they will be able to tell you what stage your dog is in, as well as how to treat it. 

What is Kidney Failure in Dogs?

Kidney failure is exactly what it sounds like: your dog’s kidneys aren’t working as well as they should be and are beginning to shut down. Again, don’t panic. This can take years to fully happen, especially if it is being treated. 

Your dog relies on their kidneys to regulate hydration and release hormones that produce red blood cells. They also help maintain a normal balance of electrolytes. If your dog has kidney failure, they’ll likely seem dehydrated a lot because of this. 

There are two types of renal failure in dogs:

Acute KidneyFailure

Most commonly associated with toxins or infections, acute renal failure causes kidney function to suddenly decline (in hours or days). This type of kidney failure is aggressive. About 60% of dogs and cats with this disease either die or are humanely euthanized because of failure to respond to supportive care. It can be treated, especially if you start care as soon as you notice symptoms. 

Chronic Kidney Failure

This is (thankfully) the more common type of kidney failure in dogs. It is a gradual decline, usually associated with old age. While all kidneys have a natural lifespan, some dogs’ kidneys will, unfortunately, deteriorate more quickly than others.

Causes of Kidney Failure

Any disease that impacts the kidneys can cause kidney failure. These conditions include:


Unfortunately, as any pet gets older, their body begins to slow down. The same happens with their kidneys. 

Congenital Disease

There are a number of inherited conditions that can lead to abnormal kidney function. Your vet will be able to detect these conditions when your pet is at a young age, so you’ll likely be prepared for kidney failure down the road. 

Bacterial Infections

These can be transmitted by swimming in or drinking contaminated water. This type of infection can cause the kidneys to become inflamed and renal cells to be destroyed.


Also referred to as kidney poisoning, toxicosis can damage the kidneys’ cells and happens when your dog ingested poisons (such as chocolate or antifreeze) or drugs (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen). 

Symptoms and Stages of Kidney Failure in Dogs

Chronic kidney disease is kidney disease that has been present for months before your pet shows any symptoms. This is likely due to them being in Stage 1 (out of four total stages), which is harder to spot due to lack of symptoms. 

Some early signs of kidney failure can include: 

  • Drinking too much and producing large volumes of urine
  • Vomiting bile (no food or anything else mixed in)
  • General depression
  • Overall weakness 
  • Increased volume of urine in the bladder

In later stages, you may notice: 

  • Blood in urine or stool
  • Lethargy
  • Pale gums
  • Ulcers in the mouth
  • Intestinal seizures
  • Significant weight loss
  • Drunken behavior or uncoordinated movement such as stumbling
  • Significant decrease in appetite
  • Breath that smells like chemicals
  • Severe vomiting

Stages of Renal Failure in Dogs

The elevation of blood waste product and abnormalities in urine, including the presence of protein, can indicate the severity of chronic kidney disease. This is indicated by Stages 1-4. In general, stages 2-3 see the most success with treatment plans! 

Median survival time for dogs in Stage 1 is more than 400 days, while Stage 2 ranged from 200 to 400 days and Stage 3 ranged from 110 to 200 days. However, treatment can drastically slow down degradation for years! 

End-Stage Renal Disease in Dogs

Chronic kidney disease is progressive, and there is no cure. Stage 4 is the final stage and it is when it is time to say goodbye to your beloved dog. Median survival time for Stage 4 kidney disease ranges from 14 to 80 days.

Treatment for Kidney Failure in Dogs

Treatment usually occurs in two phases, first flushing the kidneys and removing the accumulated toxins from the blood, and then providing treatments to manage the disease and delay its progression.

The first part is usually done through fluid sacs under the skin, which are highly effective at replacing lost hydration and flushing out your dog’s system. The second phase is done through a prescription diet and possible medication. 

There are three possible outcomes from the first phase of treatment:

  1. The kidneys will resume functioning and continue to function for a few weeks to a few years.
  2. The kidneys will resume functioning during treatment but fail again as soon as treatment stops, usually within 3 to 14 days.
  3. Kidney function will not return.

Unfortunately, there are no reliable tests that will predict the outcome. 

Prescription Diets

Nutrition is one of the cornerstones in the effective treatment of dogs with chronic kidney failure. The ideal diet for a dog in the advanced stages of kidney failure is lower in protein, low in phosphorus, and is not acidified. This type of diet helps reduce the amount of protein wastes or metabolic toxins that may make your pet feel sick and lethargic. 

Your veterinarian will recommend the most appropriate diet, containing the necessary quantity and quality of nutrients for your dog.

Phosphate Binder 

Phosphorus is removed by the kidneys. Once the filtration process is impaired, phosphorus begins to accumulate in the blood. Elevated blood phosphorus levels also contribute to lethargy and poor appetite. Certain drugs will bind excess phosphates in the intestinal tract so they are not absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in lower blood levels of phosphorus.

Finally, just remember that kidney failure does not mean your dog is actively dying. If caught early, they can live a long and fruitful life!