Kidney Disease In Dogs

Illustration of 2 dog kidneys holding hands

Have you ever wondered why so many older animals seem to suffer with kidney issues?

Of all the major organs – lung, liver, spleen, heart, and kidney – the kidney seems to be so over represented.

Logic would say that there should be an equal representation of all five major organs. For example: one fifth of the senior animals should pass due to heart conditions, and one fifth of senior animals should pass due to liver issues and so on. But that doesn’t happen. The majority of older geriatric patients seem to develop kidney issues and it may eventually be the “thing” that takes them. Why?

Kidney Disease and Dogs: The Flame of Life

Chinese medicine has a theory as to the over representation of kidney issues. From a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medical (TCVM) perspective, kidney is considered the “flame of life”. And as our animals age, the flame of life tends to dwindle. When the Qi (pronounced “chee”) or energy of the kidney depletes with age, eventually the organ starts to fail. Hence the reason so many older animals develop kidney issues.

From the TCVM prospective, the kidney is the foundation of life. Kidney Qi is manifest in the hair coat so a dog with a thick vibrant coat is considered to have good kidney Qi.

Considering the kidney is the foundation of health, it’s to be protected and supplemented throughout life by engaging in activities of life in moderation. It’s important not to deplete the kidney prematurely and to support it to thrive throughout a long and healthy life.

The Qi of our animals’ bodies consists of a combination of prenatal and postnatal Qi. Prenatal Qi comes from the kidneys and is considered our animals’ genetics, i.e., what they are born with. Postnatal Qi comes from the lifestyle our animals lead. Are they provided with good, healthy food, moderate exercise and fresh air? Through the processes of the spleen’s digestive functions and the lungs’ oxygenation functions, postnatal Qi is supplemented daily.

The kidney is the energy to the body. The digestive functions need good kidney Qi to warm the gastrointestinal tract so it can digest food properly. This warmth allows the conversion of food to post natal Qi.


The kidney is also the source of marrow, which is bone marrow as we view it, but our brain and spinal cord are also considered bone marrow. As our animals age, their marrow depletes, leading to changes in memory, dizziness, vertigo, dementia and other diminishing mental capacities. Depletion of spinal cord marrow is certainly seen in older dogs as weakness to the hind limbs.

The marrow of kidney manufactures blood and dominates bones. Animals with chronic kidney failure will also develop anemia from decreased red blood cell production. The kidney is the source for erythropoietin, which is a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production.

The bones of the aged weaken and become more brittle. The teeth are also considered bone in TCVM. Compare the beautiful white teeth of a young dog to the teeth of a senior dog. The senior dog’s teeth are less white almost cream colored with some opacity. That is evidence of depletion of kidney marrow. Loose teeth or poor quality teeth are also a reflection of the balance of kidney.

Ruler Of The Mansion

The lower back area is considered the lumbar mansion and this is where the kidneys are located anatomically. The kidney is said to rule the lumbar mansion. Lower back pain and weakness are commonly seen in the older pet. The kidney is associated with bones in general and in particular, the lumbar vertebrae or lower back. Therefore, deep seated lumbar back pain, weakness of the knees and of the lower back are a reflection of the balance of kidney. Tonifying the kidney through acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help to strengthen the lower back.

As dogs age, they slowly but surely develop hearing loss. It’s a gradual process, which may seem selective at first but with time, becomes clearly obvious that our older friend has truly lost the ability to hear. The ear is the sensory organ that belongs to the kidney and tinnitus (ringing in the ears), hearing loss, and deafness may occur as a result of kidney deficiency. As the flame of life depletes, so does the ability to hear.

We’ve all heard the wonderful older dog making his way down the hall of his house with louder harsher breathing. He seems fine but his breathing is louder and more labored than it was when he was young. The lung takes in oxygen from the air he breathes and the kidney pulls lung Qi down to cover the body and oxygenate all of his tissues. When the kidney is aged and the kidney Qi is decreased, the kidney doesn’t have the strength to pull lung Qi downward and this is heard as labored breathing.

An internal branch of the kidney meridian connects to the throat and reflects the clinical manifestation of a dry raspy cough in kidney yin deficient dogs. Heat in the mouth, a dry tongue, swollen throat, and a sore dry throat are also symptoms of kidney dryness.

In many older animals diagnosed with kidney issues, whether it be kidney insufficiency, kidney failure, chronic or acute, elevated BUN or creatinine, there is almost always some indication of diminishing Kidney Qi prior to the diagnosis or prior to the failure of the kidney itself.

There are three main types of kidney deficiency issues seen in dogs including kidney yin deficiency, kidney Qi deficiency, and kidney yang deficiency.

Kidney Yin Deficiency

Kidney is the source of all yin or fluids in the body. The symptoms to identify this presentation, kidney yin deficiency, include fatigue, general dryness, low back pain, anxiety, frequent urination, increased thirst, dry coat, vertigo, hearing loss, marginal vision, soreness and weakness of the lower back and hind limbs, panting at night, and marginal kidney function with mild elevation of BUN and creatinine levels. The acupuncture, herbs, and food chosen would be yin tonifying to nourish the yin.

Kidney Qi Deficiency

Kidney Qi Deficiency is very different from Kidney Yin Deficiency. Low back pain, weak legs and cold sensations in the lower back are all caused by Kidney Qi Deficiency. The kidneys are unable to warm the lower parts of the body. Kidney Qi is also responsible for regulating water circulation and metabolism, and its deficiency may cause water retention, which can give rise to changes in urination. Dogs with kidney Qi deficiency may drink too much and urinate too much. In addition they often have elevations of BUN and creatinine levels.

A copious amount of clear urine, especially when voided at night, is evidence of kidney Qi or yang deficiency. The kidney needs warmth to concentrate the urine and to preserve fluids. When kidney Qi depletes, so does yang. Yang is the opposite of yin and is seen as heat within the body. Older dogs who are colder to the touch, lethargic, drink a lot and urinate a lot may not have enough kidney Qi or yang to warm the body, concentrate urine and preserve their fluids. The acupuncture, herbs, and foods chosen should be warming to replenish Qi.

Kidney Yang Deficiency

The most extreme form of Kidney Qi Depletion is where the depletion has progressed to depleting the yang. The animal with Kidney Yang Deficiency is cold to the touch, listless, fatigued, has a lack of spirit, poor appetite, has difficulty controlling urine, dilute urine, increased urinary frequency, has end stage kidney failure and in general is lethargic and fragile. The acupuncture, herbs, and food need to be very warming to revive the yang and the Qi.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbs have been widely used by veterinarians to preserve kidney function. Although kidney deficiencies may be a chronic part of the aging process, it is to be fought every step of the way. Without doubt, the TCVM approach can improve quality of life and preserve kidney yin and Qi. Consult a holistic veterinarian trained in TCVM for help.

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