In this article, we will cover everything pet parents should know about kidney disease in dogs. Whenever something is wrong with a vital organ, such as the kidney, it’s undoubtedly a scary situation. With that said, by being able to recognize the early signs of organ damage, pet parents can take the appropriate steps in getting their dog the necessary medical treatment.

Additionally, there are several preventative measures that dog owners should implement in order to make sure their dog’s kidneys stay as healthy as possible. Let’s get started!

kidney disease in dogs

Important Facts About the Kidneys

Before we dive into kidney disease, let’s first discuss the importance of these vital organs. In order to understand the necessity for preventing any associated ailments, it is essential that pet owners know exactly what is at risk.

Understanding Kidney Function

The kidney is actually made up of millions of microscopic processing units called nephrons. The nephrons are responsible for separating chemicals into ones that are to be discarded and ones that are reabsorbed back into the bloodstream. Urine is produced when the discarded chemicals are dissolved in water.

Removing Toxins

The kidneys are key players in removing waste, toxins, and extra fluids from the body. Waste and excess fluids are stored in the dog’s bladder until they urinate. However, if the kidneys aren’t fully functioning (if there is not enough blood flow through the kidneys or enough functioning nephrons), the accumulated toxins are not properly released and continues to build up in the dog’s body.

Unfortunately, the large amount of toxins can cause irreversible harm for your four-legged friend. Furthermore, dogs are exposed to toxicities every single day. Therefore, if the kidneys are unable to rid the body of these toxins, they can accumulate quite quickly.

Blood Pressure Control

Additionally, the kidneys help to control the dog’s blood pressure. In fact, the kidneys are able to increase or decrease the blood pressure by controlling fluid levels and producing hormones that cause blood vessels to contract. The kidneys can make these necessary alterations depending on what the dog’s body needs at any given time.

Therefore, if the kidneys aren’t functioning properly, hypertension (high blood pressure) can result and lead to further kidney damage. Blood pressure should be monitored in kidney failure patients. Medications can be initiated to help control the dog’s blood pressure.

Red Blood Cell Production

The kidneys also create a hormone called erythropoietin that supports the production of red blood cells. Red blood cells are essential to the body for a multitude of reasons. Most people know that red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the dog’s body, but that’s not all they do. Red blood cells are also necessary for producing energy that your dog needs in order to carry about their day-to-day activities.

The patient’s red blood cell counts are monitored during chronic kidney disease. If the red blood cells drop too low, erythropoietin injections can be given to help raise their levels.

Regulating pH Levels

Furthermore, the kidneys help the body regulate pH levels. As cells break down in your dog’s body, the cells turn into acids. Certain food can cause cellular alterations, resulting in the acid levels being either too high or too low. Luckily, the kidneys help to regulate these levels by removing or adding acids of the body, depending on what is best going to benefit your pup.

Protein Conservation

Nephrons use a filtration type system to conserve protein while discarding harmful wastes. If the nephron becomes damaged, then protein can be lost in the urine. Proteinuria is monitored during kidney disease is used in staging kidney failure.

Water Conservation

The kidneys conserve water during times of dehydration. They also need to remove any excess fluid if you drink too much water, in order to prevent dilution inside the bloodstream. Pets with kidney disease are not able to concentrate urine, so they need to drink more water to process the waste products.

Electrolyte Balance

The kidneys also play a major role in controlling electrolyte balances in the bloodstream. Poorly functioning kidneys can lose their ability to conserve potassium. If the potassium levels drop in the body, your pet may exhibit weakness. Potassium supplements are commonly needed in kidney failure.

There is also an important balance between calcium and phosphorus in the blood. Phosphorus levels begin to rise with kidney dysfunction, which requires monitoring, therapeutic diets and possibly additional medications to keep the levels in an acceptable range.

Vitamin D

Finally, vitamin D is necessary for the dog’s bones to be able to absorb phosphorus and calcium. The kidneys produce an active form of vitamin D and help keep the bones strong and healthy. If the kidneys are suffering, it can cause subsequent damage to the rest of the body.

As you can see, it is incredibly important that your dog’s kidneys are fully functioning. They are truly essential to the dog’s health, well-being, and quality of life.

Where Are the Kidneys Located

Like people, dogs have two kidneys. They are located in the dorsal abdomen alongside the lumbar spine region.

where are the kidneys located

What is Kidney Disease (Renal Disease)

Kidney disease (also known as renal disease) refers to any condition that causes damage to the kidneys. In some cases, dogs will show early signs of kidney damage and if their owners recognize the symptoms, treatment is available. It may also be possible to reverse acute damage with proper medical intervention. However, unfortunately, most cases of kidney disease aren’t diagnosed until the dog has lost up to 75% of their kidney function. Often times, it is far too late as substantial damage has been done.

With that being said, early detection of kidney damage can truly make a world of difference for your dog. It can quite literally be the difference between life and death. Furthermore, routine check-ups and preventative measures are two things that all pet owners must incorporate into their fur baby’s life (more on that in a moment).

Kidney Disease vs Kidney Failure

We also want to mention that you may hear the terms kidney disease and kidney failure used interchangeably. It is important for pet owners to understand that there are four stages of the disease yet many refer to stage one and two as kidney disease and stage three and four as kidney failure. Kidney disease (or early stages of kidney damage) can possibly be reversed, whereas, progressed damage (kidney failure) is often irreversible.

Define Renal

The last important thing to note before we dive into more specifics is the medical term, renal. Renal is defined as relating to, affecting, involving, or located in the region of the kidneys. Therefore, renal disease or renal failure are two other ways veterinarians may talk about kidney disease or kidney failure.

Types of Kidney Disease

Now, let’s get into kidney disease. First, your veterinarian will likely make a positive diagnosis of kidney disease based on the blood testing and urinalysis. Then, they will determine the type of disease. There are two broad ’types’ of kidney disease that dog owners should be aware of: acute kidney disease (AKD) and chronic kidney disease (CKD). Both types have their own set of causes, symptoms, treatment options, and prognosis.

Acute Kidney Disease in Dogs (AKD)

Acute kidney disease develops when there is a sudden decline in kidney function. It can occur within a matter of days without much (or any) warning. The most common cause of acute kidney disease in dogs is the ingestion of toxins such as antifreeze, different poisons, or medications intended for humans.

Additionally, acute kidney disease in dogs can develop from infections and urinary obstruction, decreased blood flow, as well as decreased levels of oxygen being delivered to the vital organs.

Unlike chronic kidney disease, acute kidney disease typically has a root cause that veterinarians are able to pinpoint. For this reason, dogs with AKD should begin treatment immediately and, in many cases, veterinarians can help ensure that the damage doesn’t cause permanent harm to the kidneys.

Of course, every case is different and we encourage our readers to not delay if they (for absolutely any reason) believe their dog may be suffering from kidney damage.

Chronic Kidney Disease in Dogs (CKD)

The second type of kidney disease in dogs is referred to as chronic kidney disease (CKD). The term chronic refers to a condition that slowly develops over an extended period of time. Additionally, chronic can also refer to diseases that are constantly recurring. For this reason, the underlying cause of the condition’s development can be difficult to diagnose, even with extensive testing. In many cases of chronic kidney disease, genetics play a strong role in its development.

What is Chronic Renal Insufficiency or Renal Failure

Chronic renal insufficiency or chronic renal failure are two additional ways that you may hear your veterinarian describe chronic kidney disease in dogs. We feel that it is important that pet owners are familiar with all of the ways that their dog’s condition may be talked about.

We likely don’t have to tell you that any disease, particularly those associated with vital organs, can be incredibly scary. Knowing as much as you can about the condition will help remove many uncertainties and ‘unknowns’ that only prove to add additional stress for both the dog and dog owner.

What Causes Kidney Disease in Dogs

Several factors can ultimately contribute to the development of kidney disease in dogs. In some cases, kidney damage is (for the most part) unavoidable. However, there are other circumstances that are, in large part, able to be prevented.

By understanding the causes behind the condition, pet owners can ensure that they are taking the appropriate steps to avoid harm to their furry companion’s vital organs.


Countless studies show a strong correlation between conditions like kidney disease and age. In fact, in dogs, the probability of kidney issues significantly increases after the age of seven. Chronic kidney disease essentially occurs with age when nephrons die off as a result of wear and tear. Sadly, scientists have yet to formulate a pill that can completely stop time (fingers crossed it’s in the works). However, there are certain things dog owners can do to ensure the health of their aging pup’s kidneys. We promise we’ll get to all of that information soon!

Breed Predisposition

As strange as it may sound, extensive research proves that some breeds are at a genetic predisposition for developing kidney disease. These breeds include:

  • Samoyed
  • Bull Terrier
  • Cairn Terrier
  • German Shepherd
  • English Cocker Spaniel

what breeds are prone to kidney disease in dogs

Additionally, the following breeds are known to have an increased risk of abnormal kidney development, also known as renal dysplasia. This congenital kidney abnormality can often result in damage to the vital organ. These breeds include:

  • Shih Tzu
  • Lhasa apso
  • Golden retriever
  • Norwegian elkhound
  • Chow chow
  • Standard Poodle
  • Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier
  • Alaskan malamute
  • Miniature Schnauzer
  • Dutch Kooiker

With that said, just because you have one of the aforementioned breeds doesn’t mean they will certainly have kidney issues. In the same breath, just because your dog is of a different breed doesn’t mean they aren’t at some risk, even if it’s small.

However, it is important for all dog owners to be aware of any diseases associated with their dog’s genetics. Keeping an eye out for diseases before they develop is an imperative part of early detection.

Medication Toxicity

Additionally, experts have also drawn correlations between both kidney and liver damage to the high levels of toxins found in conventional medications. Now, we certainly aren’t negating the absolute importance of conventional medications. Who knows where we would be without such scientific advancements. However, we are stating that the rate that many medications are prescribed is at an incredibly high and dangerous level. Always follow the recommended dosing and never give any over-the-counter medications without first consulting a veterinarian.

Medications that are known to negatively affect the kidneys are being administered every single day. From yearly vaccinations to heartworm preventatives to flea and tick treatment, your dog’s body isn’t equipped to flush out such a large amount of toxicity. As the toxins build-up, the kidneys (and liver) are inevitably affected. We recommend consulting with a holistic veterinarian regarding appropriate medications for your pet.


Diet, diet, diet! We cannot stress the importance of diet enough. It can truly alter your dog’s quality of life in more ways than you may imagine. When it comes to the kidneys, diet also comes into play. In fact, countless studies show correlations between poor quality, processed foods and kidney damage in dogs. Dog foods that are higher in phosphorus and protein can be harmful to the kidney and increase the progression of renal disease.

Whenever possible, it is imperative that pet owners make sure their four-legged friends are being fed the best, well-balanced diets available. Your dog’s food source is linked to countless ailments that can easily be avoided just by making sure you do your homework before purchasing your pet’s next meal.

Environmental Toxins

Additionally, environmental toxins are often directly tied to both acute and chronic kidney disease. These toxins include everything from anti-freeze and household cleaners to herbicides and pesticides. How environmental toxins affect the dog will ultimately dictate whether their kidney disease is acute or chronic in onset. For instance, if poisoning occurs, renal function will decrease rapidly and symptoms will develop quickly and severely. On the other hand, if the dog is continuously exposed to an environmental toxin such as mold, chronic damage can occur over an extended period of time.

We understand that not all environmental toxins can be entirely avoided. It’s an unfortunate fact about the world we live in. However, certain environmental toxins can certainly be limited and/ or managed.

antifreeze can cause kidney disease in dogs

Additional Causes of Kidney Disease

While the aforementioned causes are often most prevalent, they aren’t the only ways that the kidneys can be damaged. Kidney damage (and therefore, kidney disease) can also result from the following causes:

  • Shock
  • Stress
  • Infection
  • Untreated diseases
  • Blood clots
  • Blood loss
  • Kidney stones
  • Dehydration
  • High blood pressure
  • Congestive heart failure

What Causes Chronic Kidney Disease in Dogs

Many causes of kidney damage are the same for both CKD and AKD. However, there are a few underlying causes that are prominently associated with chronic kidney disease.

Dental Disease

Other than aging, another common cause of chronic kidney disease in dogs is actually periodontal disease. The bacteria in the mouth that forms tartar, can spread through the bloodstream and move into vital organs like the kidneys. In fact, the bacterial invasion does not only affect the kidneys, but also the heart and liver.

Additional Risk Factors

A group of veterinarians known as the International Renal Interest Society (or IRIS) composed a list of additional risk factors that can lead to kidney disease in both dogs and cats. These risk factors include:

  • Glomerulonephritis (acute inflammation of the kidneys)
  • Nephrolithiasis (kidney stones)
  • Pyelonephritis (kidney infection)
  • Ureteral obstruction & hydronephrosis (blockage caused by stones)
  • Tubulointerstitial disease (involving the kidney tubules)
  • Cancer
  • Leptospirosis
  • Amyloidosis (a protein condition)
  • Hereditary nephropathies (a genetic condition)

kidney disease in dogs symptoms

General Kidney Disease Symptoms

Next, let’s cover the symptoms of kidney disease that all pet owners should be aware of, regardless of whether your dog is at a higher risk of the ailment.

Unfortunately, the early signs of kidney disease are often difficult to recognize. Many owners may notice that their dog is drinking much more water than usual. This is in efforts to rid the body of the build-up of toxins that the kidneys aren’t able to manage on their own. Eventually, and often not long after the excessive water intake begins, the accumulation of toxins become a serious issue that even ample amounts of water can’t resolve.

Additionally, pet owners should keep an eye out for the following general symptoms of kidney disease in dogs:

  • Increased urine production
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy and overall weakness
  • Bad breath
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased sleeping
  • Poor or dull coat appearance
  • Sore mouth
  • Depression

Acute Kidney Disease Symptoms | AKD Symptoms

Symptoms of acute kidney disease are those of ‘general’ kidney disease. The important difference is that in terms of AKD, the symptoms develop extremely fast. Therefore, it is imperative that dog owners understand that timely medical intervention is paramount.

Chronic Kidney Disease Symptoms | CKD Symptoms

Similarly, the symptoms of CKD are those of ‘general’ kidney disease, yet they develop slowly over time. This is troubling due to the fact that most symptoms don’t become obvious until up to 75% of kidney function has diminished. Therefore, it is extremely important for dog owners to be implicitly aware of anytime their dog’s health seems “off” and act accordingly. Do not delay in getting your four-legged companion the medical attention that can ultimately save their life. Additional symptoms of chronic kidney disease include:

  • Urinary incontinence (urine leakage)
  • Dehydration
  • Lethargy
  • Reduced appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss
  • Bad breath with a chemical odor
  • Oral ulcers
  • Pale appearance

Stages of Kidney Disease in Dogs

The International Renal Interest Society (IRIS) are responsible for the staging criteria. The IRIS’s mission is to better aid veterinary practitioners in diagnosing and treating kidney disease in dogs and cats.

As we previously mentioned, these experts refer to chronic kidney disease in four stages. The stages are based on the blood creatinine and SDMA levels. There are also substages that are based on proteinuria and high blood pressure.

  • Stage I (nonazotemic): refers to a decrease in kidney function which allows a build-up of toxins. However, the toxicity build-up has not yet reached dangerous or irreversible levels.
  • Stage II (mild azotemia): often has mild or no symptoms, but there is toxicity in the blood.
  • Stage III (moderate azotemia) Many clinical signs may be present but the severity may vary.
  • Stage IV (severe azotemia) : refers to progressed stages of kidney disease. The dog will show physical symptoms. Often, the damage to the kidneys is severe and irreversible.

*Azotemia refers to when the toxins in the blood build up and exceed the normal range (BUN and creatinine). When the patient feels sick from the toxins, the condition is called uremia.

stages of kidney disease in dogs

What Causes Kidney Failure | Renal Failure

Ultimately, renal failure is caused by untreated kidney damage and associated kidney disease. If your dog’s kidney issues continue, it is only a matter of time before the toxicity levels become more than the dog’s body can handle.

General Renal Failure Symptoms

Symptoms of renal failure are typically those of renal disease, yet much more severe. Additional clinical signs of renal failure include:

  • Anemia
  • Dehydration (even with increased water consumption)
  • Lethargy and/or depression
  • Increase in urination and/or difficulty urinating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Fluid accumulation (often causing swelling in the abdomen and/or limbs)
  • Changes in the kidneys
  • Abdomen tenderness
  • Hunched over posture
  • Reluctance to move
  • Changes in behavior (often total withdrawal)

Treatment for Kidney Disease

Treating kidney disease in dogs will ultimately depend on the underlying cause of the damage, whether the condition is acute or chronic, and how progressed the disease is. The most common treatments include fluid therapy and therapeutic diets. Additional medications may be needed for elevated blood pressure, electrolyte changes or anemia. Sadly, in cases of kidney failure, there is typically no cure. Pet owners are encouraged to keep their dog as comfortable as possible as the disease is often fatal.

Preventing Kidney Issues in Dogs

As we previously mentioned, not all kidney issues can be entirely prevented. However, there are several important steps that pet owners can take in order to prevent damage to the vital organs.

Limiting Toxicities 

Perhaps the most important thing that dog owners can do is limit their pet’s exposure to chemically based medications and vaccinations. Talk to your holistic veterinarian regarding which vaccines are actually necessary for your dog’s individual needs. (Trust us, they aren’t all necessary) Furthermore, it is important for dog owners to understand that there are countless holistic alternatives to the vast majority of conventional medications.

Regular Check-Ups

Finally, we want to reiterate that early detection can make a world of difference when it comes to kidney disease in dogs. Pet owners should make sure there are staying on top of their fur baby’s health by scheduling regular check-ups and having routine lab work performed.

diagnosing kidney disease in dogs

Kidney Disease in Dogs: The Bottom Line

Being a doting dog owner isn’t always a walk in the park. In fact, when problems arise it can not only be a heart-wrenching time, but an incredibly frustrating one as many pet owners wonder what went wrong. From always feeding Fido a species-appropriate diet that’s full of nutrients to make sure they have plenty of mental and physical stimulation, you do your best to ensure your dog’s health and well-being. Yet, from time to time, health issues inevitably develop. It is imperative that dog owners understand the tell-tale signs of certain common medical conditions in order to treat the ailment before it worsens.