is dialysis an option for pets with kidney failure?

Photo
Cat being examined by veterinarian | Dialysis for pets
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Apr 08 2015

Updated September 26, 2019

Compromised kidney function is relatively common in veterinary medicine. Older pets can develop chronic kidney failure, and all pets (especially curious youngsters) can fall victim to toxins that wreak havoc on their kidneys.

As we look forward to spring, one such danger to keep in mind is lily toxicity in cats. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center sees a 503% increase in lily exposure during the week of Easter, thanks to Easter lilies, but several other varieties of lily can also cause kidney failure and death in cats. They need not nibble plants to be affected—cats who so much as groom lily pollen from their coats are at risk. If you have cats, don’t keep lilies. Period.

But so many other things can cause injury to our pet’s kidneys, including:

1. Over the counter medicines, like human anti-inflammatories

2. Prescription medications (even those prescribed to your pet, when consumed in excess)

3. Anti-freeze

4. Grapes and raisins

5. Urethral obstruction in male cats

6. Infectious disease, like Leptospirosis

Whatever the cause for kidney damage, a common question I get from pet owners is, “What about dialysis?”

Human medicine relies on hemodialysis to keep people in chronic kidney failure feeling good, but until relatively recently, this really hasn’t been an option for our pets. Dialysis works by doing the kidney’s job for it. Our pet’s kidneys (and our own kidneys) are responsible for cleaning toxins from the blood. These toxins are expelled from the body in urine. Damaged kidneys do a bad job, and toxins build up in the blood, making pets and humans feel awful.

Dialysis for pets

Typically, dialysis in humans is a long term solution. For our pets, dialysis is used a little differently. Dogs and cats in chronic kidney failure might be candidates for dialysis in some situations, but cats and dogs who are suffering from acute kidney failure (the kind caused by toxins and the like) are great candidates. These pets just need a little help while their kidneys try to heal.

By filtering the blood, dialysis affords your pet the gift of time. Without dialysis, toxins would build up in your pet’s blood, causing illness and potentially death. Dialysis takes the burden off of the kidneys and helps your pet feel better while his kidneys try to catch up.

While dialysis is more common these days than it used to be, it’s still considered a new kid on the block as far as veterinary patients are concerned. There are only a dozen or so dialysis centers in the country, and treatment is costly, which is where pet insurance helps. Treatment schedules vary depending on the patient, but you can expect your pet to need somewhere around 6 to 8 treatments over the span of a few weeks. And at up to $750 a session, you’re looking at $7,000 or more for the whole course of treatment, with no guarantees that your pet will respond. 

The numbers aren't terrible—about half of the patients with acute kidney failure who undergo dialysis make it through, although some will require prescription diets or other medications because of permanent kidney damage. But if your pet is lucky enough to pull through, I suspect the lifetime of love he gives you in return is well worth it.