The kidneys serve several important functions in the body, including removing waste and excess water from the blood; helping to control blood pressure; stimulating the production of red blood cells; releasing hormones; and balancing minerals. Because the kidneys play such a central role in the body, diseases that affect the kidneys can have a serious impact on your overall pet’s health. And in many cases, kidney disease turns out to be fatal.
Most cases of kidney failure in pets are treated with some combination of nutritional therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes. But for some pets, a kidney transplant may also be an option.
So how can you know if a kidney transplant is right for your pet? Let’s take a look.
What Is a Kidney Transplant?
A kidney transplant is a surgical procedure in which a pet’s diseased kidney is replaced by another pet’s healthy kidney. However, the procedure is not necessarily as simple as it sounds, and it’s not a quick fix. Pets that receive new kidneys need to receive immunosuppressive medications to prevent the body from rejecting the new organ. In addition, there is always risk of complications such as infection or blood clotting, so the decision to carry out a transplant should not be taken lightly.
Where Do Kidney Donors Come From?
Feline donors generally come from research facilitates and in most cases, the family of the recipient cat must adopt the donor cat after the procedure.
For dogs, the owner is usually responsible for locating a donor, and many programs require that the donor dog be related to the recipient dog to reduce the likelihood of the recipient’s body rejecting the new kidney.
Kidney Transplants: Cats vs. Dogs
Kidney transplants for cats have been performed since the mid-1980s, and many cats that receive new kidneys have good survival rates. The University of California at Davis program indicates a 75-80% success rate for feline kidney transplant patients.
The procedure is more complicated in dogs. Their immune systems tend to reject new kidneys more often than cats, and they are also at higher risk for procedure-related complications. The long-term prognosis is not that great, either. The UC Davis program sees only a 40% success rate for canine kidney transplant patients.
Is Your Cat a Candidate for a Kidney Transplant?
Every kidney transplant center will have its own criteria for determining if your cat is a good candidate for a transplant. However in most the cases, the best candidates are:
- Cats that are otherwise healthy and free of disease.
- Cats with progressed-but-not-advanced kidney failure, i.e. kidney failure should not be in the early stages, nor should it be the late stages.
- Cats that have not responded to other treatments.
- Cats with creatinine levels greater than 4.0 mg/dl.
Any cat that is being considered for a kidney transplant must be thoroughly screened to ensure that they are healthy enough for the procedure. A typical screening includes:
- Blood testing (including basic blood panel, blood typing, and blood pressure monitoring)
- Urine culture
- Feline leukemia virus screening
- Feline AIDS screening
- Screening for toxoplasmosis
- Cardiac evaluation
- Abdominal ultrasound
- Dental evaluation
- Cross match testing between the recipient cat and the donor cat to ensure compatibility
Is Your Dog a Candidate for a Kidney Transplant?
The screening procedure for dogs is usually the same as it is for cats. Just like cats, the dog should be otherwise healthy and free of disease and must undergo certain tests. In addition to many of the tests carried out on cats, dogs must also be screened for heartworm disease and blood clotting disorders.
Even if your cat or dog is a good candidate for a kidney transplant, there are certain factors to consider before jumping into the procedure:
- Potential Complications: Kidney transplants do not always go smoothly, and common complications include rejection of the new kidney (and thus the return of kidney failure); infection as a result of immunosuppressive therapy (common in dogs); blood clots; and scarring of the ureter (the tube that carries urine from the new kidney to the bladder. If scarring occurs, another surgery is required).
- Cost: Kidney transplants tend to be very expensive; they can range anywhere from $12,000 to $20,000. In addition, pets that receive new kidneys will require immunosuppressive medication for the rest of their lives. The most widely prescribed immunosuppressive drug – Cyclosporine – costs around $150 for a month’s supply. The University of Georgia estimates that owners generally end up spending around $1000 a year for medications and follow-up testing.
- Long-term Care: As mentioned above, pets that receive new kidneys will need to take medication for the rest of their lives. You must commit to administering the medication twice a day. In addition, the use of Cyclosporine requires periodic blood level monitoring, and the long-term use of the drug increases your pet’s chance of developing cancer.
If you are thinking about a kidney transplant for your pet, talk to your veterinarian.
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