Kidneys are the body's filtration system, removing toxins and waste products from the blood and excreting them out in the urine. Dogs have two kidneys situated just behind the ribs, close to the spine. A kidney can become damaged for many reasons; as a non-regenerative organ, once its cells die, they cannot be replaced.
The treatment of renal failure is always tricky, but dogs present a unique challenge. The canine immune system is different from that of cats and people, making a dog's body more likely to reject a donated kidney rapidly. Although canine kidney transplantation is considered to still be in the trial stage, it is possible to perform kidney transplants for dogs in some states. One kidney is removed from a healthy donor dog and surgically inserted into a dog suffering from renal failure. In these complex procedures, the patient will still require lifelong therapy, but a successful surgery could give the dog a longer and better quality life.
In order for a kidney transplant to take place, a donor dog needs to be found. In most cases, donors are from rescue centers. Interestingly, once the operation has taken place, the family of the recipient dog is expected to adopt and care for the donor dog for the rest of his or her life. That means you'll take one dog in for the operation and take two home afterwards, effectively saving two lives. This is the only way veterinarians have been able to overcome the ethical dilemma of taking a kidney from a donor pet that is unable to consent to the operation like a voluntary human donor would.
Prior to the operation, both dogs will undergo extensive testing to ensure they are a reasonable tissue match, free from any other diseases, and both healthy enough to be able to cope with the procedure and follow-up care. It is important to be sure that both kidneys in the donor dog are functioning well, as a single healthy kidney is capable of supporting a body alone.
Only a few veterinary hospitals will be able to perform the extremely complex and specialized operation, which could mean that those seeking it will have to travel. Your dog is likely to be in the clinic for several days both before and after the surgery and will continue to need care once he or she is home.
Unfortunately, despite treatment to try to prevent it, the rejection rate in canine kidney transplants is very high. In order to prevent this, it is preferable for the donor dog to be related to the recipient. An investigative program run by the University of California at Davis saw a canine kidney transplant success rate of just 40%, but this program has been on hold since 2007.
Life expectancy after surgery for the recipient dog is variable and depends on many factors. For some, it may only be a matter of months, but there are reports of patients living for several years after their operations. The other consideration for many people is the cost. Kidney transplants are expensive because of the specialized skills required and the degree of after-care and medication your dog will need. Be prepared for an estimate deposit of $13,000 before the surgery and a total operation cost of $20,000 or more.
If your dog has kidney failure and you would like to consider an organ transplant, please speak to your veterinarian. They will be able to discuss your options with you and put you in touch with a specialist.