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What Causes Kidney Failure in Cats? (And How to Avoid It)

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Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He works with dogs, cats, exotics, and livestock.

Keeping your cat hydrated may help prevent kidney failure.

Keeping your cat hydrated may help prevent kidney failure.

Reasons for Kidney Failure in Cats

The cause of most cases of chronic kidney failure in cats is never identified. In one study, in about 66% of the cats, the cause was not found (but this number was only so low because some of the cats had acute kidney failure caused by infection and urethral obstruction). (1)

The most commonly cited reasons for kidney failure in cats are:

  • infection (that also affects the kidneys)
  • poisons
  • trauma
  • inability to pee due to blockages
  • kidney stones
  • high blood pressure
  • heart failure and low blood pressure
  • dental disease
  • cancer

Many of those causes are mostly found in outdoor cats (poisons, trauma), so why is this disease so much more common now than it used to be? (2)

Could Dehydration Be Another Cause?

In humans, it has been proven that long-term dehydration—even if it is mild—leads to kidney failure. (That is one reason that you are advised to drink two or more glasses of water a day.

One study showed that people who drank a lot of water were 50% less likely to develop kidney disease. (3) Cats, being desert animals, do not drink much, but in the wild, they are able to get most of their water from their food.

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So what happens to a cat who is fed only dry food for years and years? Mild dehydration, especially if the cat does not like to drink the still water in their bowl or is suffering from whisker fatigue and does not like to drink from the bowl at all.

How to Keep Your Cat Hydrated

If you want to avoid mild dehydration (and maybe subsequent kidney damage), here are a few things to try.

  • Offer your cat water from a ceramic or stone fountain.
  • Start feeding canned food instead of dry (there are non-prescription canned foods low in phosphorus if you are starting out with an older cat that may already have kidney damage).
  • Have several water bowls available for your cat to drink from. At least one of them should be shallow so that it does not irritate your cat's whiskers when they are drinking.
  • Have water of different types/temperatures available so that your cat is more likely to drink what they like. You can add lukewarm water to one, an ice cube to another, and offer the last at room temperature.

There are some things that we cannot prevent. Dehydration is not one of them; even though it has not been proven as a cause of kidney failure in cats, it is best to prevent it by following these suggestions.

When to Go to the Vet

If you suspect that your senior cat has renal failure but have not been able to take them to the vet, there are things you can do. If you see signs that your cat is blocked, it is an emergency and they will need to be taken to the vet.


  1. Chen H, Dunaevich A, Apfelbaum N, Kuzi S, Mazaki-Tovi M, Aroch I, Segev G. Acute and chronic kidney disease in cats: Etiology, clinical and clinicopathologic findings, prognostic markers, and outcome. J Vet Intern Med. 2020 Jul;34(4):1496-1506.
  2. Reynolds BS, Lefebvre HP. Feline CKD: Pathophysiology and risk factors--what do we know? J Feline Med Surg. 2013 Sep;15 Suppl 1:3-14.
  3. Bouby N, Clark WF, Roussel R, Taveau C, Wang CJ. Hydration and kidney health. Obes Facts. 2014;7 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):19-32.

This article is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from your veterinarian. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2022 Dr Mark

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