LIFE WITH A CAT LIVING WITH KIDNEY DISEASE
Something wasn’t right with my cat, Brandy.
For all of her 15 years, eating had always been her greatest joy. She always knew exactly when her meals were, and if my husband and I were only a few minutes late in feeding her, SHE WOULD LET US KNOW. This was the cat who, only a year ago, had stolen a salmon fillet off my plate when I ran five feet into the kitchen for a napkin.
But she wasn’t hungry. This had never happened before.
It started when she was unenthusiastic about her dinner one night. She ate it, but her usual relish seemed tempered. This continued into the next morning, and by the next night she merely licked at her food, walked away, and curled up in bed. I couldn’t even coax her with tuna. This was when I got scared.
Looking in her little kitty face, I just knew she wasn’t feeling well.
The next morning, already with the intention to take Brandy to the vet, I woke up to an upsetting sight. Brandy had thrown up all over my apartment. Looking in her distressed and confused eyes, my heart ached. I wept as I cleaned up her sick.
If your cat (especially a senior cat) starts exhibiting some of the below symptoms, take them to the vet ASAP. The sooner you catch kidney disease or renal failure in your cat, the sooner you can slow the progression of the disease.
increased thirst and water consumption
lack of appetite
A short while later, Brandy and I sat in her vet’s office. I should note that it really is worth cultivating a strong relationship with a good vet — knowing Brandy’s age, needs, and medical history, he got her in immediately.
Our vet, I’ll call him Dr. S, ran a slew of tests on Brandy and though his tone was comforting, he told me we had a lot to talk about.
At this point, it’s important to remember that the words “kidney” and “failure” can sound hopeless, but know that chronic renal failure is something that many cats live quite well with for a significant amount of time. There are many levels of kidney disease and kidney failure, so it’s very important to talk with your vet about exactly what to expect from the level of failure/insufficiency your cat is at. You’d be surprised how much of kidney failure can be controlled with medication and diet.
Point being: Don’t freak out!
Brandy’s kidneys had taken a turn for the worse. She was now in “early kidney failure” (as opposed to “insufficiency”); her creatinine levels having risen considerably since her last visit (here is a helpful guide to decoding feline kidney disease “lingo”). Along with her kidney issues, Brandy also has Hyperthyroidism, heart issues, and liver issues. My vet always reminds me that all her issues are linked, so when one organ or system is in distress, it causes a domino effect with the others.
For the first time, Brandy was really feeling sick. This just wouldn’t do for me. So I took a deep breath, and asked my vet what we were going to do to make her feel better.
Dr. S changed some of her medications, altered the levels of others, and then told me that it would be best to start her on daily subcutaneous fluids. Subcutaneous fluids or “subq” fluids are essentially IV fluids, like Sodium Chloride, that will take some of the stress off her kidneys and help her body to flush out built up toxins. Subq fluids can be instrumental in extending the life of a cat in renal failure.
Yes, this meant sticking my cat with a needle and attaching her to an IV everyday for the rest of her life, but there was no question about doing this for me. Heck, I’d stick myself with a needle daily if it meant she would feel better.
So loaded up with lots of IV bags, needles, tubes, new meds, and Dr. S’ orders of “Just get her to eat, that’s the first and most important step”, Brandy and I headed home to start getting her back to feeling like her old self.
This is what I like to see, Brandy waiting at her bowl!
First order of business: EATING.
To get a little food in her, I offered her The Honest Kitchen’s Pro Bloom Instant Goat’s Milk. A favorite of hers, she slowly drank some of what I gave her, but I could tell she wasn’t that interested. Knowing she needed to get some meat and complete nutrients into her, I prepared her favorite Primal Pet Foods raw Chicken Mix for dinner. (NOTE: the Chicken Mix is not a complete diet, so we blend in a mix of vitamins and supplements to make it a complete cat food. Consult your vet first if you are considering making your own pet food.)
The poor girl sniffed it, but refused.
Determined not to let this stop me, I boiled some chicken water (chicken legs or breast boiled in water — NO SEASONING — to make a broth) and added it to her food to make a Chicken Mix-chicken water slurry or “stew”. I fed the “stew” to her warm (not hot! test it with your fingers to make sure there are no “hot pockets”) in order to increase the aroma of her food. Sometimes, a cat or dog can be coaxed to eat warmed or even “quick-seared” food because the smell is stronger and more tantalizing.
The stew did interest her more, and she managed to eat about half of it over the course of the night. Still not ideal, but a step forward that gave me hope.
I spent the next couple days jumping on any occasion when Brandy even glanced at her food bowl. The Chicken Mix-chicken water slurry worked OK, but I found that searing some of her chicken for a few seconds in a pan with a bit of coconut oil — to give it a different taste and texture — was a big help in enticing her to eat. And drizzling a tiny bit of tuna water over her food for a few days (due to her Hyperthyroidism I generally don’t like to give her tuna at all anymore — unless I’m desperate) really helped put her back over the edge into HUNGRY territory.
I cried again — this time tears of joy — when she cleaned her plate for the first time in a week.
Getting Brandy to eat was a big step in helping her body function more efficiently, and properly absorb the medication she was taking. Every cat is different, but the best advice I can give you if your sick and/or elderly kitty stops eating, is to NEVER GIVE UP. There were days I felt like all I did was try new “recipes” for Brandy — every time I put down her bowl my stomach would be in knots over “would she or wouldn’t she” eat. In the end I learned a lot about what tempts cats to eat, and even more about what tempts MY cat. This knowledge about my cat’s likes and dislikes has come in immensely handy over the course of her illness.
Now, under the guidance of a holistic vet, I cook a “renal diet” for Brandy. She eats a lean, chicken-based diet of whole foods (some vegetables, eggs) and carefully balanced oils, supplements, and vitamins. We didn’t come to this diet lightly, and the vet who prescribed her diet took her full history and went over all her tests and blood work. I truly believe that any animal nutritionist or vet who is prescribing diet recipes should take the time to do this.
Cooking for Brandy was the best “renal diet” choice for us. Brandy had been on a raw, partially raw, or home-cooked diet for the last five years, and this seemed like the least jarring transition for her. Despite her health issues, I believe her diet — in the past as well as present — has helped her maintain a quality of life that I have not always seen in other cats with her problems.
Even her vet is impressed that she has such a soft, shiny coat and still has all her teeth! And despite being on the thin side, the vet techs at the vet’s office have said to us on many occasions (EVERYONE knows Brandy the rascally senior cat!) that Brandy doesn’t “look or act” like a sick cat. I truly believe that a high quality diet is responsible for Brandy’s relatively good condition.
Like I said, home cooking was the best choice for Brandy, but there are other store bought/ready made choices out there. Discuss all your options with your vet. When I told my vet that I’d prefer not to feed Brandy a “prescription diet” by a pet food company I didn’t like, he and I discussed other options like home cooking and alternative renal diet foods. A lot of living with a cat with kidney disease is educating yourself on what your cat can or cannot eat. The more you know, the better you can make smart decisions for your cat.
Then there was her subcutaneous fluids. I can say this now: giving her fluids terrified me.
Not because I have an aversion to needles (I’ve cared for numerous cats who require injections or fluids) but because Brandy, though sweet to my husband and me in her own way, has never been a cat that likes to get too cozy with anybody, let alone be held.
The subq fluids required that I keep her relatively still for around five minutes, WITH A NEEDLE IN HER. Initially, those five minutes seemed like FOREVER.
Those first few tries were less than successful. Fluids went flying, I stabbed myself, I went through eight disposable needles in one session — all the while Brandy getting stressed and angry. Finally, after a few days of struggling, I decided to try a different approach.
I had to work with Brandy on her terms, so to speak. Until then, I’d been trying to hold Brandy still or wrangle her into accepting the subq needle. Was it possible to make “watering” Brandy part of something she enjoyed? This is when I turned to her heated bed.
Brandy LOVES her heated bed. These days, especially at night, her senior cat body gets really cold. However, all I have to do is plug in her bed, plop her in, and she kneads and purrs her way to bliss.
I wondered, could the heated bed be the key to making her subq fluids a positive experience? Could it be that simple?
I was willing to try anything. So I fired up the bed, hung her fluid bag nearby, and armed with post-fluids treats (VERY IMPORTANT!), I gathered up Brandy and put her in her bed. Settling in, she “smiled” up at me with blinking eyes.
Staying calm, I scratched her shoulders for a few minutes, babbling to her like I always do. Then slowly, like it was no big thing, I reached for the needle and the IV line…tented her skin at her shoulders…and quickly poked the needle under her skin. She barely noticed.
For the first time, I was able to administer her fluids with minimal fuss and with both of us completely relaxed. After that, “watering” Brandy wasn’t so scary anymore. I just had to figure out a way to work with her instead of against her.
Giving your cat subcutaneous fluids may seem like one of the most intimidating things you have to do, but it does get easier. Now, watering Brandy is just one of those things we do on a daily basis. (NOTE: For more detailed instructions on administering fluids to your cat, I found this article very helpful in guiding me through the subcutaneous fluids process.)
These days Brandy has stabilized. She’s back to enjoying her food and behaving like her old self.
She doesn’t feel sick, and I’m determined to keep it that way for as long as possible. Our lives are certainly more carefully regimented around her meds and her subcutaneous fluids — her schedule of meds literally requires a daily checklist — but it’s a change my husband and I have been willing to make.
I wanted to share Brandy and my story because I believe that life with a cat LIVING — emphasis on LIVING — with kidney disease or renal failure does not have to be depressing or sad. If anything, I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate every moment I have with Brandy a little more. We’ve gotten to know each other better.
Brandy takes a “selfie” — she’s back to her old hijinks.
There will be tough times when you can’t seem to get the hang of the subq fluids or your cat JUST WON’T EAT the food you give her; times you’ll fear you can’t do it. I won’t pretend that having a cat with kidney disease isn’t nerve-racking once in a while. But it can be done.
And to those cat parents out there dealing with the initial stages of their cat’s kidney disease or renal failure, just remember that all the hardships are in service to your precious kitty. Even when things seem frightening or hopeless, remember that your cat is depending on you, it’s okay to be intimidated, and that if countless other nervous cat parents have done it, you certainly can too.
Give your furry family-members a scratch for us.
Brandy sends her regards.
~ Your Loyal Calvin & Susie Blogger
If you are interested in consulting with a vet about a special diet for your pet, the vet I consulted was Dr. Ihor Basko. A Hawai’i-based vet, he offers consultations via email and phone. Dr. Basko was able to give me multiple kidney diet recipes I could cook for Brandy, as well as recommend appropriate supplements. Dr. Basko is willing to work with clients all over the world.
Note: Always check with your vet before making any changes to your pet’s diet. The Calvin & Susie Blogger always researches to the best of her ability, but she is not a vet. This blog is not in any way meant to replace veterinary advice or care. When in doubt, always ask a vet.