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Is a kidney transplant right for my pet?

Kidney failure is a leading cause of death in pet cats, with at least 30% of cats developing this devastating health condition as they age. Many treatment options exist, but they only manage clinical signs and slow disease progression, and are not a cure. For some cats, however, an alternative treatment may be available—a kidney transplant that provides your cat with a healthy kidney to reverse organ failure.

What is kidney failure?

Cats have two kidneys located in their abdomen that produce urine to eliminate waste products from the body. Each kidney continuously filters blood to remove waste products, such as ammonia, that will cause toxicity if allowed to accumulate. Acute kidney failure occurs suddenly if the kidneys are exposed to an insult, such as a toxin or low blood pressure, whereas chronic kidney failure causes a slow degeneration and is not typically linked to an apparent cause.

Not until 65% to 75% of kidney function is lost do waste products begin to accumulate in the blood, causing kidney failure signs, such as:

  • Decreased appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Increased or decreased urination
  • Dehydration
  • Fruity or acetone-smelling breath
  • Oral ulcers

The kidneys cannot regenerate and kidney failure is irreversible. Unfortunately, since most kidney function has been lost before the disease becomes apparent, few successful treatment options are available and the cat has little time left. A kidney transplant can permanently stop kidney failure and give you more time with your beloved pet.

Which cats are good candidates for a kidney transplant?

To be a good kidney transplant candidate, your cat should be free of other significant health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, infections, or other systemic diseases. Organ transplantation is major surgery, and your cat may not recover if she has another illness. A thorough diagnostic evaluation will be completed prior to surgery to determine whether your cat is healthy enough to undergo a kidney transplant. Many cats require stabilization with intravenous fluids and medications before they can safely be anesthetized for the procedure.

How is a donor kidney located?

A donor kidney is fairly easy to locate, since most cats have the same blood type—type A—and the donor does not need to be related to be compatible. Donor kidneys typically are provided by shelter cats. In most hospitals that offer transplant services, the kidney comes with the caveat that you must adopt the donor cat. Donor cats trade a life-saving kidney for a forever home, creating a win-win situation for both animals. Cats, like people, can live normal, healthy lives with only one kidney, and donor cats typically recover from surgery with no complications.

Are kidney transplants successful?

Success rates for feline kidney transplants are high, with more than 90% of cats successfully surviving the surgery, and approximately 70% alive one year later. Cats live an average of three years following a kidney transplant, with most cats eventually dying of unrelated causes.

What costs are involved with a kidney transplant?

The factor most likely to prevent an owner from considering a kidney transplant is the cost. An uncomplicated kidney transplant costs between $12,000 and $15,000, which includes the surgery for both the kidney donor and recipient. Following surgery, patients require regular veterinary visits to ensure the kidney is working well and has not been rejected. Anti-rejection drugs and other medications cost approximately $1,000 per year, and are taken for the rest of the cat’s life. In addition, owners incur the cost of adopting the donor cat, who will require short-term care after surgery. Pursuing a kidney transplant requires dedication and commitment, but may be an option for owners who can’t imagine a future without their furry companion.

Which veterinary hospitals perform kidney transplants?

Since a kidney transplant is a complicated procedure that requires an experienced surgery team and high-tech equipment, it is typically performed only at veterinary teaching hospitals. If your AAHA-accredited veterinarian has diagnosed kidney disease in your cat, and you would like to pursue a kidney transplant, ask for help locating a facility that offers the procedure.