Kidney Failure Treatment

Fluid Therapy

The Cornerstone of Treatment

Ensuring optimal hydration is the single most important aspect of kidney failure treatment. The kidneys are made up of millions of small filtration units called nephrons. Blood is filtered by these nephrons so that waste chemicals and toxins are separated from desirable materials (such as proteins, sugars, electrolytes, etc.). The chemicals the body needs are returned to the circulation and the excesses and toxins are channeled into the urinary tract. The excesses and toxins must be kept dissolved in water for this process to work but the kidney, one of whose jobs is to conserve water for the body, must be able to use the smallest amount of water possible to keep the toxins dissolved. This solution of waste toxins dissolved in water is urine. It is produced continuously by the kidneys, stored in the urinary bladder, and periodically dumped into the environment.

Over a lifetime, nephrons are damaged and are no longer able to participate in the filtration process. They die from poor circulation or they become clogged by toxin sludge or they may simply wear out. Fortunately, we have many extra nephrons so losing some is not a big problem; that is, not a big problem until we have lost about two-thirds of them. At this point the remaining nephrons will have trouble keeping up with the waste removal demands of the body. Extra water is needed to remove the same amount of metabolic toxin. Since water cannot be conserved, the patient begins to drink excessively. Eventually, toxins build up and the patient feels sick.

This means that if the kidney disease is not detected until the patient is already feeling sick, less than one third of the original number of nephrons are left. We need to maximize the efficiency of these remaining nephrons, and hopefully slow down their loss. We also need to get rid of enough toxins for the patient to feel good again.


Diuresis is the medical term for increased urine production. The patient is already doing this somewhat but the reality is that in order to get rid of more toxin, more urine must be produced. This is accomplished by giving the patient more fluid, either intravenously in the hospital or under the skin in either the hospital or the home setting. The more fluid we put in, the more circulation there is through the remaining nephrons and the more toxin can be excreted out.

Intravenous (IV) Fluid Therapy

Intravenous fluid therapy involves placement of an intravenous catheter in the leg or neck so that a continuous drip of fluids can be given directly into the bloodstream. The procedure is not painful or stressful; after the catheter is placed, the patient simply relaxes in a hospital cage, periodically receiving additional oral or injectable medications. After 2 or 3 days, lab tests are repeated to see what parameters have changed. Therapy is revised at that point to either continue IV fluids or discharge the patient with a new plan for home treatment.

IV fluid therapy offers many benefits to the kidney patient:

  • Continuous hydration means continuous maximized nephron activity and the most efficient toxin removal.
  • Rapid response to treatment (days).
  • Because hospitalization is needed for this treatment, a professional staff will be monitoring the patient's progress and can make rapid adjustments in adjunct therapy.

The disadvantages of IV fluid therapy include:

  • Expense of hospitalization.
  • The faster fluid administration can lead to dilution of the red blood cell count, creating or exacerbating anemia. This may create a new problem that requires therapy. The veterinarian will take the patient's red blood cell count into consideration when determining an IV fluid rate.
  • Occasionally a patient dislikes the bandaging associated with the catheter and chews the catheter out. This incurs additional expense as the catheter is replaced and potentially the patient may need to wear an Elizabethan collar, which could be uncomfortable.
  • Stress from separation of pet and owner, though we find in most cases that it is the owner's stress and not the pet's that dominates. Most animals are comfortable in their cages, nothing that generates fear is happening, and they quickly habituate to the cage environment and activity viewed through the bars.

Subcutaneous Fluid Therapy

The word subcutaneous means under the skin. Here, fluids are given all at once in a "pocket" under the skin and the patient absorbs them gradually. Initially, intravenous fluid therapy is generally considered superior to subcutaneous fluid therapy but this depends on the blood test results of the patient; some are able to skip straight to subcutaneous fluids or are forced to by the expense of intravenous therapy. Fluids are typically given every couple of days with the frequency increasing if the pet gets worse or decreasing as the pet gets better.

Advantages of subcutaneous fluids include:

  • The procedure is easy for a client to learn and perform at home. Separation from the pet is not needed.
  • Because hospitalization is not needed, this form of therapy is much less expensive.
  • The procedure can be performed in the hospital on an outpatient basis if the patient is not cooperative at home.
  • Therapy is performed usually only every couple of days (though in more advanced cases could be once or even twice a day).

Disadvantages of subcutaneous fluids include:

  • The owner must be comfortable with sticking a needle into the pet's skin. This psychological hurdle is generally overcome after the owner performs the procedure a couple of times. There are also implantable injection ports available (see below).
  • Changes in toxin level tend to occur more slowly (weeks). This makes subcutaneous fluids less appropriate for more advanced cases.
  • Large dogs often require inconveniently large volumes of fluids.
  • Some patients attempt to hide from the owner when they think the needle is coming, and some people feel this changes the relationship with their pet too negatively to be worthwhile. It is important to realize that this is not the usual experience with subcutaneous fluids; most people find that the comfortable life quality for the rest of the day or next several days more than compensates for the 10 minutes of unpleasant fluid administration. Most pets are cooperative for fluid administration.

See more details on how to give subcutaneous fluids.

To assist people who find periodic needle sticks objectionable for their pets, there are two products that may be able to make subcutaneous fluid administration possible: the Endo-Sof Subcutaneous catheter made by Global Veterinary Products and the GIF tube made by Practivet. Both products are soft tubes that are implanted under the pet's skin in a minor anesthetic procedure. An injection port protrudes from behind the pet's neck and the fluid port can be inserted without the pet feeling it. The disadvantage is that the pet will have a plastic disc on the base of the neck (an area where petting is traditional and thus somewhat disrupted). Also, general anesthesia (though brief) is required for implantation.

See more information on the Endo-Sof tube.

See more information on the GIF tube.

An additional product available that can be placed with a local anesthetic is basically a button with an injection port by Norfolk Vet Products. For information, call (847-674-7143847-674-7143).

The disadvantage of these products is that they can become infected or clogged after several months. Veterinarians report a mixed bag of experiences: some good, some frustrating. If this is something you are interested in, discuss the pros and cons with your veterinarian.

An alternative form of fluid administration is the esophagostomy tube. A tube is placed through a small hole in the esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth and stomach). Fluids can be administered through this tube and into the stomach thus avoiding the needle stick. The tube can stay comfortably in place for months but the hole will require regular cleaning and bandaging at home. A cat with an esophagostomy tube should not be allowed outside in case the tube or bandages become entangled in bushes, fences, etc. General anesthesia is required for placement of this tube.


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