Kidney Transplants

Success Depends on Surgical Skill and Caregiver Dedication

Unfortunately, there comes a time in the life of many an older cat when the kidneys start to fail. Without many effective treatments available, the condition can be a harbinger of impending death within a year or so. But thanks to more than a decade of research, many regional veterinary hospitals offer kidney transplants as an option to those who are very committed to extending their cats life.

Kidney transplants can offer some cats several more years – two to six and sometimes even more – of a quality life. In the early stages of chronic renal failure, renal transplantation may be a good option for an adult cat that is still relatively healthy – has not lost much weight, is still fairly bright, and has a fairly good appetite, says James Flanders, DVM, a surgeon at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

But buyers beware: A kidney transplant is not a cure but a treatment that buys time. Approximately 70 percent of cats having transplants survive to go home; about 70 percent of cats who go home survive the first year after surgery, says Flanders. Some cats reject the new kidney despite good follow-up care, while others survive up to six more years, he adds.

Choosing the donor
The surgery requires a healthy living donor cat that may already be a member of the family or chosen from the hospital colony of cats or from an animal shelter. The donees caretaker must guarantee the donor a loving, responsible home for the rest of his life. Thus, the human family, who will adopt the donor cat, must take care in choosing the next member of their clan by selecting one they want to love for the rest of the cats life. Even if the recipient cat has a shortened lifespan a donor cat will be around for years to come. Since the recipient cat is in the hospital for 10 to14 days and the donor for only several days, the family has some time without the resident cat at home to bond with the new member of the family.

The health risks for giving up a kidney are very low for the donor, says Flanders; lacking a kidney is not a health risk for a healthy cat because the remaining kidney compensates and provides more than enough kidney function. The donor should be about the same size as the recipient, between one and three years old, and generally healthy. Flanders notes that identifying compatible tissues generally isnt a problem because cats tend to be more tissue compatible than are humans or dogs. However, the donor and the recipient cats must have the same blood type.

Commitment and devotion a must
Transplants are not the right choice for critically ill cats, cats with other major diseases such as heart failure or inflammatory bowel disease, or cats that have ever had kidney or bladder infections because of their higher risk of a fatal infection after they are given immunosuppressive drugs.

Although the donor organ is rejected occasionally, the procedure is becoming ever more successful. But success has a high price tag: $6,000 to $8,000. After the first post-surgery year, Flanders estimates that the annual cost will be $1,000 to $1,500, including twice daily anti-rejection medication.

Renal transplantation places financial, emotional, and physical stress on the owners of the transplant patient. The decision to seek renal transplantation for a cat requires a strong commitment and devotion to the care of both the recipient and donor cats. When owners weigh the alternatives and prepare to make a choice, they should not under estimate the level of this commitment, Flanders concludes.