Early detection of chronic kidney disease in cats

Detecting CKD in its earlier stages is beneficial for enabling the prompt implementation of therapeutic interventions

03 September 2020, at 7:30am

Chronic kidney disease (CKD) is a common disease in cats, particularly as they get older. A recent study analysing electronic health records of cats found the prevalence of CKD to be 17 percent, with a mean age at diagnosis of around 13 years (Bradley et al., 2019). The cause remains unclear in many patients, but histology of the kidneys of affected cats often shows chronic interstitial nephritis and renal fibrosis, the severity of which is dependent on the stage of disease (McLeland et al., 2015). One of the most important and challenging aspects of CKD management is early diagnosis in order to implement effective treatments and management strategies to slow the progression of the disease and monitor it effectively.

What are the benefits of detecting CKD early?

TABLE (1) IRIS staging of CKD in cats (adapted from IRIS, 2019)
TABLE (1) IRIS staging of CKD in cats (adapted from IRIS, 2019)


Detecting CKD in the earlier stages is beneficial for enabling the prompt implementation of therapeutic interventions. These interventions are likely to be most effective earlier on in the course of the disease (Lees, 2004). The International Renal Interest Society (IRIS) has described a staging method for CKD in cats (Table 1), incorporating multiple factors including serum creatinine and symmetric dimethylarginine (SDMA), and can be further staged using the urine protein to creatinine ratio (UPC) and blood pressure. Nutrition is one of the most important aspects of management, as it has been shown to significantly impact the survival time of cats with CKD, particularly with respect to phosphorous restriction (Elliot et al., 2000). Recent guidelines from the International Society of Feline Medicine have recommended starting a renal diet for cats with CKD as early as possible in stage 2 (Sparkes et al., 2016). Whilst they acknowledge that there has been no determined point at which diet starts to produce benefits, ensuring that the cat accepts the diet and will eat it consistently is important, and acceptance of a new diet is more likely to occur before the cat’s appetite starts to become affected as a consequence of uraemic toxins. Renal diets should be gradually introduced over four to eight weeks to increase the likelihood of acceptance.

One of the benefits of starting a phosphorous-restricted diet early on is the addressing of hyperphosphataemia, which in turn can cause secondary renal hyperparathy­roidism. As the number of functioning nephrons decreases so does glomerular filtration rate (GFR), in turn leading to a reduction in the excretion of phosphate ions. Para­thyroid hormone (PTH) is secreted in response to hyper­phosphataemia to inhibit phosphate ion reabsorption in the kidney but also increases calcium and phosphate ion efflux from bone, in addition to stimulating renal calcitriol production. This increases calcium ion concentrations, and decreases phosphorous concentrations, but as phos­phorous is ultimately excreted by the kidney, hyperphos­phataemia occurs if dietary intake is not controlled (Ged­des et al., 2013).

Hyperphosphataemia also inhibits the production of calcitriol, which is an important inhibitor of PTH synthesis and is involved in phosphorous and calcium absorption from the intestine (Kidder and Chew, 2009). One study found that 84 percent of cats with CKD have an increased PTH (Barber and Elliot, 1998). Furthermore, some cats in that study were found to have normal concentrations of ionised calcium and serum phosphorous with elevated levels of PTH. Feeding renal diets with restricted phosphorous is associated with suppression of phosphate and PTH concentrations (Elliot et al., 2000). Secondary renal hyperparathyroidism is usually seen in cats with CKD at stages 3 and 4, given the severity is seen to increase with increasing azotaemia (Barber and Elliot, 1998). However, hyperphosphataemia and secondary renal hyperparathyroidism can be identified in cats with CKD as early as IRIS stage 2 (Kidder and Chew, 2009) which suggests the importance of starting dietary modification promptly in these cases.

How can CKD be diagnosed earlier?

Investigations to rule CKD in or out are often started in response to the cat being presented with clinical signs that the owner has noticed, or after abnormalities are detected on routine monitoring tests. Routine “wellness checks” are encouraged for senior cats once they reach between 7 and 10 years of age at intervals of six months, and it is recommended that a physical examination and haematology, biochemistry, urinalysis, total thyroxine (T4) and blood pressure measurement is included (Pittari et al., 2009). This may help to detect CKD at an earlier stage for many cats, as they often appear well despite suffering from underlying diseases. In addition, owners may attribute clinical signs in older cats solely to ageing. Clinical signs in these patients include polyuria, polydipsia, weight loss, anorexia and lethargy among others (Reynolds and Lefebvre, 2013).

Clinical signs are important factors when considering the likelihood of a patient having CKD. A study by Green et al. (2014) found that the likelihood of a patient having CKD increased when cats had lost 10 percent or more of their body weight in the previous 6 to 12 months. The same study found that periodontal disease, cystitis, dehydration or anaesthesia occurring in the previous year were also associated with an increased likelihood of CKD, which should prompt investigation to rule CKD in or out in those patients.

When considering investigations for these patients, the diagnosis of early CKD is difficult; there is no accurate biomarker that exists for renal function. Methods that directly measure glomerular filtration rate are not widely available and a diagnosis is usually achieved using a combination of blood testing and urinalysis. Even then, interpretation of these tests can be challenging (Sparkes et al., 2016).

Creatinine is widely used to aid diagnosis of renal disease in cats alongside other diagnostic tools including urinalysis. It is produced by muscle and filtered by the glomerulus, although not reabsorbed. This means it is not as affected by pre-renal causes, such as dehydration, unlike urea. However, the interpretation of creatinine is not without challenge. Because creatinine is produced by muscle, muscle mass can affect creatinine levels and should be considered when interpreting creatinine values (Braun et al., 2003). In addition, approximately 75 percent of renal filtering capacity can be lost before elevations in creatinine and urea are seen on serum biochemistry (Finco et al., 1995), so detecting CKD early on is challenging. Indeed, the IRIS staging criteria (2019) indicates that a cat with stage 1 or 2 CKD may have a normal serum creatinine, and to diagnose these earlier stages of renal disease other diagnostics should be considered.

Identifying an SDMA that is persistently elevated above 14 μg/dl, proteinuria or other findings including abnormal histopathology results from a renal biopsy may raise suspicion of underlying CKD. Measuring SDMA is a relatively new test that has become available over the last few years and shows promise in identifying CKD in cats at an earlier stage. Concentrations of SDMA have been shown to increase up to 17 months before serum creatinine (Hall et al., 2014), therefore it has a place in aiding diagnosis in cases where creatinine is not elevated but CKD is suspected. SDMA can also be of use in Birman cats, which have been shown to have physiologically high creatinine levels, to avoid over-diagnosing CKD in this breed (Paltrinieri et al., 2018).

Urinalysis is of great importance in the diagnosis of CKD and is recommended for use alongside biochemical tests during investigation of these patients. Detecting the presence of proteinuria is also useful in the early diagnosis of CKD in cats, and the UPC has been shown to be associated with survival in cats (Syme et al., 2006; King et al., 2007).


The early detection of CKD in cats can be difficult, although advancements have been made recently that increase the likelihood of detecting CKD at earlier stages, including the availability of SDMA analysis. A thorough clinical history, along with regular assessments of those cats most at risk of developing CKD, is recommended. Once diagnosis is achieved, CKD should be staged and substaged to appropriately tailor treatment, and appropriate therapeutic interventions should be instigated early in the course of CKD.

Author Year Title
Barber, P. and Elliot, J. 1998 Feline chronic renal failure: Calcium homeostasis in 80 cases diagnosed between 1992 and 1995. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 39, 108-116
Bradley, R., Tagkopoulos, I., Kim, M., Kokkinos, Y., Panagiotakos, T., Kennedy, J., De Meyer, G., Watson, P. and Elliot, J. 2019 Predicting early risk of chronic kidney disease in cats using routine clinical laboratory tests and machine learning. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 33, 2644–2656
Braun, J. P., Lefebvre, H. P. and Watson, A. D. J. 2003 Creatinine in the dog: a review. Veterinary Clinical Pathology, 32, 162-179
Elliott, J., Rawlings, J.M., Markwell, P.J. and Barber, P.J. 2000 Survival of cats with naturally occurring chronic renal failure: effect of dietary management. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 41, 235-242
Finco, D. R., Brown, S. A., Vaden, S. L. and Ferguson, D. C. 1995 Relationship between plasma creatinine concentration and glomerular filtration rate in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 18, 418-421
Geddes, R. F., Finch, N. C., Syme, H. M. and Elliot, J. E. 2013 The role of phosphorous in the pathophysiology of chronic kidney disease. Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, 23, 122-133
Greene, J. P., Lefebvre, S. L., Wang, M., Yang, M., Lund, E. and Polzin, D. J. 2014 Risk factors associated with the development of chronic kidney disease in cats evaluated at primary care veterinary hospitals. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 244, 320-327
Hall, J. A., Yerramilli, M., Obare, E., Yerramilli, M. and Jewell, D. E. 2014 Comparison of serum concentrations of symmetric dimethylarginine and creatinine as kidney function biomarkers in cats with chronic kidney disease. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 28, 1676-1683
International Renal Interest Society 2019 IRIS Staging of CKD
Kidder, A. and Chew, D. 2009 Treatment options for hyperphosphataemia in feline CKD: what’s out there? Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11, 913-924
King, J. N., Tasker, S., Gunn-Moore, S. A. and Strehlau, G. 2007 Prognostic factors in cats with chronic kidney disease. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 21, 906-916
Lees, G. E. 2004 Early diagnosis of renal disease and renal failure. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 34, 867-885
McLeland, S. M., Cianciolo, R. E., Duncan, C. G. and Quimby, J. M. 2015 A comparison of biochemical and histopathologic staging in cats with chronic kidney disease. Veterinary Pathology, 52, 524-534
Paltrinieri, S., Giradi, M., Prolo, A., Scarpa, P., Piseddu, E., Beccati, M., Graziani, B. and Bo, S. 2018 Serum symmetric dimethylarginine and creatinine in Birman cats compared with cats of other breeds. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 20, 905-912
Pittari, J., Rodan, I., Beekman, G,. Gunn-Moore, D., Taboada, J., Tuzio, H. and Zoran, D. 2009 American Association of Feline Practitioners: Senior Care Guidelines. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 11, 763–778
Reynolds, B. S. and Lefebvre, H. P. 2013 Feline CKD: Pathophysiology and risk factors – what do we know? Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 15, 3-14
Sparkes, A.H., Caney, S., Chalhoub, S., Elliot, J., Finch, N., Gajanayake, I., Langston, C., Lefebvre, H. P., White, J. and Quimby, J. 2016 ISFM consensus guidelines on the diagnosis and management of feline chronic kidney disease. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 18, 219-239
Syme, H. M., Markwell, P. J., Pfeiffer, D. and Elliot, J. 2006 Survival of cats with naturally occurring chronic renal failure is related to severity of proteinuria. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 3, 528-535

Susanna Clark, BVetMed, MRCVS, graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in 2014 and worked in small animal practice in the South East for four years before joining Royal Canin in 2019 as a Veterinary Business Manager.

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