We’re all familiar with transplant medicine in people, where diseased and failing organs are replaced by healthy ones donated by other people, living or dead. Many people have had their lives changed or even saved by a donation of lungs, liver, heart, kidney, or cornea. Transplant medicine has reached the veterinary field with cats now being able to benefit from a kidney transplant.
Kidney transplants are used to treat cats with chronic irreversible kidney failure that isn’t responding to medical treatment. Not all cats are candidates, though; those chosen for this procedure must be free from viral infections such as feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus. They must not be suffering from cancer or any other ongoing medical condition. High blood pressure and anemia must both be well controlled before surgery. It’s also important that the recipient cat is in as good body condition as possible before their operation. This can be challenging because most cats with chronic kidney disease lose weight.
The kidney for transplant comes from a donor cat that must then be adopted and cared for by the family of the recipient. Again, donors must be in good health and free from infection and disease. One study suggested that over time, kidney failure was more prevalent in donor cats than in the general population but this study also said that it wasn’t possible to draw long-term conclusions from their work alone.
A complicating factor that will influence whether a cat can receive a transplanted kidney is access to suitably qualified and experienced veterinarians. This procedure is often only available at university veterinary hospitals and there may not be a facility within reasonable distance of a potential kidney recipient.
During the actual transplant procedure, the kidney is removed from the donor cat and placed into the abdomen of the recipient cat where the blood vessels are connected with microsurgery techniques. The ureter that will carry urine from the healthy kidney is connected directly to the bladder. No kidneys are removed from the recipient cat, which means they’ll live the rest of their life with three kidneys.
Kidney transplantation problems can occur in three main areas. First, during the surgical procedure, there could be anesthetic complications or difficulty in connecting the blood vessels and ureter appropriately. Second, there is the possibility of the new kidney being rejected. Anti-rejection medication will help to minimize this risk. The third main risk is infection. The drugs used to prevent rejection of the kidney also suppress the immune system so these cats are at a greater risk of picking up an infection. Fortunately, advances in technology have meant that these risks are lessening all the time.
The outcome of kidney transplants in cats has been monitored by the University of Wisconsin and the University of California: statistics show that 80% of cats will survive six months after their surgery, while 65% will survive for three years. However, this procedure can make a big dent in a family’s budget with the cost of a transplant ranging from $12,000 to $15,000. That doesn’t include any ongoing food and veterinary expenses for the adopted donor cat. While kidney transplantation is an option for managing end stage feline kidney failure, it won’t be suitable for all cats or all pet parents.