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Kidney transplants for cats: A viable option

Lillian Aronson, VMD, BS, CACVS, performed Oki’s kidney transplant in May 2015, removing a kidney from a donor cat named Cherry.

As too many cat lovers know, kidney disease is very common in felines, particularly as they age. The kidneys are responsible for many key bodily functions, from regulating blood pressure to removing toxins from the bloodstream. Unlike acute kidney failure, which occurs when a cat ingests something toxic, like antifreeze, lilies, or human anti-inflammatory medication, chronic kidney failure is irreversible—functioning kidney tissue is replaced by scar tissue, resulting in a loss of kidney function over time.

Treatment options can be daunting, particularly if the disease is advanced. Your veterinarian may recommend dialysis or other methods of keeping your cat comfortable. But there’s another alternative to consider: kidney transplantation.

Success rates have been high for the few dedicated veterinary surgeons who perform feline renal transplants in the U.S. While most cats live an average of three years post-transplant, Lillian Aronson, VMD, BS, CACVS, founder and coordinator of the Feline Renal Transplant Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, had one feline patient live an additional 13 years with his transplanted kidney.

Kidney donor, Cherry (left), and recipient, Oki, after their surgeries.

“For the right cat, it can be an excellent treatment option,” said Aronson, who has performed over 150 feline kidney transplants. “Ninety-three percent of our patients have left the hospital. Approximately 70 percent are alive and doing well at one year [post-transplant].”

One of the things that makes kidney transplants a viable option for cats is the relative ease in finding a donor match.

Most cats have the same blood type—A—and unlike dogs, they don’t need to be related to be considered compatible.

Additionally, cats, like people, can live normal, healthy lives with just one kidney. In fact, Aronson’s team conducted a study of 99 feline kidney donors from the program and found most had no associated long-term effects from kidney donation.

There is one caveat, however: If your cat needs a kidney transplant and a potential donor is found from an animal shelter or elsewhere, you must adopt the donor cat regardless of the outcome of the surgery, an ethical practice supported by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

Fortunately, Aronson said that’s typically not an issue. Most owners are so grateful to the donor cat for helping save the life of their pet, they happily welcome a new addition into their home.

“People get very attached, very quickly,” Aronson said. “It’s really nice to see.”

Feline renal transplants require a great amount of commitment, and whether you’re ready to adopt a donor cat isn’t the only thing to keep in mind. An uncomplicated surgery can cost anywhere from $15,000–$18,000, plus $60–$100 a month for anti-rejection medications and other drugs. While some pet insurance companies will help cover the cost of feline kidney transplant surgery and associated treatments, it is important to read your policy carefully and be mindful of any pre-existing conditions before scheduling the procedure.

Donor cat, Cherry, was adopted by Oki's family after the transplant.
Oki and Cherry celebrated their first "transplantiversary" in May 2016.

After surgery, the recipient cat will need to have frequent veterinary exams to make sure the new kidney is working and to monitor potential complications. You will also need to give immunosuppressive medications at the same time every day to prevent your cat’s body from rejecting the new kidney.

While pursuing a kidney transplant for your cat is not a decision to be made lightly, some owners say it’s worthwhile despite the high level of commitment involved.

New York archeologist Andre Gonciar said he is glad he and his wife, Laure, decided to pursue a kidney transplant for their beloved cat, Oki, who was a sick, abandoned kitten when Gonciar rescued him years ago. Aronson performed Oki’s kidney transplant on May 18, 2015, removing a kidney from a donor cat named Cherry.

Now Oki and Cherry have celebrated their first “transplantiversary” and are both doing great. Cherry is settling into life in the Gonciar household, and Oki is “a happy bubble of a cat,” according to Gonciar.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we have done the right thing,” he said. “Some sacrifices had to be made and caring for Oki forced quite a few changes in our lifestyle, getting it on a rather strict schedule. But at the end of the day, he falls asleep purring in my arms and we are all happy.”

Award-winning pet writer Jen Reeder was thrilled to be able to donate her left kidney to her husband in 2012.

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