Finding out that your dog has kidney disease is heartbreaking. However, for many dogs, the progression of kidney disease can be slowed and the side effects managed by a change in diet.
Dogs with kidney disease—sometimes also called renal disease— have kidneys that cannot adequately flush toxins from their bodies. Some of the toxin buildup can be attributed to the phosphorus content in the dog’s diet; thus, one way to manage kidney disease is to switch the dog to a low phosphorus dog food diet.
Although there are a number of prescription low phosphorus dog food options for managing kidney disease, it is also possible to find non-prescription dog foods that can provide the same benefits. That being said, if you are concerned that your dog might have kidney disease, make sure to consult your veterinarian before making changes to your dog’s diet. Your vet will be able to assess your dog’s health and determine what type of diet would be best to address their needs.
What is Kidney Disease?
When dogs have kidney disease, their kidneys are unable to filter blood effectively. As the disease progresses, the ability to produce urine and excrete waste products decreases further. In the end stages of renal disease, some dogs may not be able to urinate at all. Some symptoms of kidney disease may include lethargy, a need to drink often and frequently urinate, and decreased interest in food.
There are two types of kidney disease: acute kidney injury and chronic kidney disease. Acute kidney injury happens suddenly and may be caused by infections, injuries, certain medications, or the ingesting of foods or substances toxic to dogs (like grapes, aspirin, or antifreeze).
In comparison, chronic kidney disease appears gradually, making the root cause difficult to pinpoint. Still, some breeds do have a higher risk of developing kidney disease. Other lifestyle factors, including diets containing too much phosphorus, may increase the likelihood of the dog developing kidney disease.
What is Phosphorus?
Phosphorus is an electrolyte that your dog’s body uses as an energy resource. Foods high in protein—including dairy products, beans, lentils, and processed meats—tend to also be high in phosphorous.
Kidneys play a role in processing and excreting excess phosphorus. When dogs have kidney disease, their kidneys cannot handle phosphorus as effectively, and this buildup can become dangerous and toxic.
Although dogs with kidney disease should have less phosphorus in their diets, they still need some amount of it. As dogs age, their phosphorus needs decrease (whether they have kidney disease or not). Senior dogs eating a diet with more phosphorus than they need may develop kidney disease from the excess.
Why is Calcium Important for Dogs with Kidney Disease?
Calcium supports heart function and muscle and bone health. Calcium can also work as a phosphorus binder, helping the body remove extra phosphorus; for this reason, it is especially important for dogs with kidney disease to have an appropriate amount of calcium in their diets.
Dog foods higher in phosphorus than calcium may contribute to the worsening of canine kidney disease. Your vet can help you address your dog’s specific needs and can help you find an appropriate food or supplement to meet your dog’s calcium needs.
Potassium and Canine Kidney Disease
For dogs with kidney disease, potassium is another important electrolyte to consider. Because dogs with kidney disease may have potassium levels that are too low, many prescription low-phosphorus diets contain a higher level of potassium to offset that deficit.
However, in some cases, this higher level of potassium may be harmful to the dog. Although this is more likely to occur in dogs with acute kidney injury, dogs with chronic kidney disease may also end up with hyperkalemia (potassium levels that are too high). Thus, it is very important to work with your vet to find out how much potassium your dog’s food should have.
Which Dogs Need a Low Phosphorus Diet?
Phosphorus plays an important part in dogs’ nutrition, aiding bone growth and development. Puppies and juvenile dogs need more phosphorus because they are growing, but as dogs age, the amount of phosphorus they need decreases.
Because of this, in addition to dogs with kidney disease, senior dogs may benefit from a low phosphorus diet. Though older dogs need some phosphorus in their diets, the amount present in some commercial pet foods may increase the likelihood of kidney disease developing in these older dogs. Because of the contribution phosphorus has toward kidney disease, it may be smart to preemptively change a senior dog’s diet to one lower in phosphorus.
One way that kidney disease is managed is by changing the afflicted dog’s diet. Depending on the stage and type of kidney disease, your veterinarian may recommend modifying your dog’s diet to a low phosphorus one (typically around 0.6%). For dogs whose kidney disease is not too advanced, a change in diet may slow the disease’s progression, allowing them to live longer, healthier lives.
How Much Phosphorus Should Dog Food Have?
Although some dog foods are made from ingredients that make the food naturally lower in phosphorus, other foods may consist of as much as 2% phosphorus content. This is much too high for dogs with kidney problems, whose food should consist of around 0.60% phosphorus. For healthy older adult dogs, recommended daily phosphorus intake is only marginally higher.
Depending on the severity of the kidney disease and your dog’s particular needs, an amount higher or lower than 0.60% phosphorus may also be appropriate. Your vet can provide more specific guidance tailored to your dog’s situation.
Which is Better: A Diet High in Protein or Low in Protein?
Low phosphorus diets may be high or low in protein. While it is important that your dog continues to have protein in their diet, the amount needed will be dependent on factors such as the progression of the kidney disease.
Although high protein diets can be beneficial for some dogs with kidney disease, others may not be able to tolerate them. Dogs with more advanced kidney disease may not be able to handle low phosphorus foods that are high in protein because the dog’s kidneys may be unable to filter out the protein.
Ultimately, it is best to consult with your vet to find out whether your dog would benefit more from a low or high protein diet.
Even for dogs with kidney disease requiring a lower level of protein in their diet, it is important that the proteins present in the diet be high-quality. Because processed meats and meat byproducts (fillers) can be high in phosphorus, it is better to pick “real meat” proteins.
That being said, some protein sources such as sardines and beef naturally have higher levels of phosphorus. Other meats like duck and turkey are lower in phosphorus. For dogs with even more restrictive diets and lower phosphorus needs, quinoa may also be a good option.
What about Salt Content?
It is also important to monitor your dog’s salt intake. As with humans, a reduction in salt can benefit your dog’s blood pressure. For dogs with kidney disease, high blood pressure is particularly dangerous, as the kidneys play a key role in maintaining blood pressure.
What is the Difference between Prescription and Non-Prescription Low-Phosphorus Canine Diets?
Prescription low-phosphorus dog foods are specifically crafted for dogs with kidney disease, while non-prescription low-phosphorus dog foods may not be intended specifically for dogs with kidney disease.
Some non-prescription dog foods that are low in phosphorus may not be healthy for a dog with kidney disease: They may contain ingredients that your vet would want your dog to avoid. Because of this, it is important to thoroughly research and understand what ingredients are in non-prescription low-phosphate dog foods before starting your dog on that diet. If you are not sure if a non-prescription low-phosphate food would be healthy for your dog, you could also consult your vet.
One drawback of prescription low-phosphate dog foods is that they also tend to be very low in protein. Dogs with less advanced kidney disease may function better with a higher-protein, low-phosphorus diet than a low-protein, low-phosphorus diet. That being said, your vet should be able to assess your dog’s kidney disease and determine the best dietary changes to make.
Changing Your Dog’s Diet Effectively
Your dog will be more receptive to the new food if the change is made gradually. The new food should be mixed with the old food, beginning with smaller ratios and increasing until the old food can be eliminated completely.
If your dog does not seem to be taking to the new food, you may need to slow the process down. If all else fails and your dog still does not want to eat it, you may need to try a different flavor (if available) or add a liquid (such as tuna water) that has been approved by your vet.
Some dogs may have less appetite in general due to nausea. It is important to remember to encourage your dog and not be discouraged if they are not eating as they should. You can communicate with your vet to find out what additional foods you could use to encourage your dog to eat, then add those to the new food.
3 Non-Prescription Low Phosphorus Dog Food Options
Dr. Harvey’s Canine Health Miracle Dog Food Pre-Mix
Compared to other dog foods, this option by Dr. Harvey’s may take a little more preparation because it needs to be rehydrated and a protein added in order to make it a full meal. However, the human grade ingredients, which include vegetables, grains, egg shells, and herbs, may be more appetizing to your dog than other kibble dog foods. This pre-mix, which is non-GMO, can also help improve your dog’s hydration.
Natural Balance L.I.D. Sweet Potato and Venison Formula Dry Dog Food – Sweet Potato & Venison
This grain-free dog food by Natural Balance is low phosphorus (0.6%), although it is not specifically marketed as such. As a limited diet option, this food is also good for dogs with allergies or certain food sensitives. This food is not low protein, though, and may not be the best fit for dogs with later stage kidney disease.
This gluten-free dog food is both low in phosphorus and low in protein. Because its protein level is so low, though, you will want to check with your vet to make sure the protein level is enough for your dog’s needs before changing their diet. As a bland diet food, this option is good for dogs with upset stomachs, further making it a good choice for dogs with kidney disease who may have decreased appetite and nausea.
2 Prescription Low Phosphorus Dog Food Options
This prescription dry food is low in both phosphorus (0.29%) and sodium. The amino acids in the food help your dog build and maintain lean muscle, and the other ingredients work to protect both the canine kidneys and heart. This line of low phosphorus dog food is also offered as a canned wet food, so if your dog needs more hydration, you might want to consider that instead.
Blue Buffalo’s grain-free kidney support dry food is both low in phosphorus (0.25%-0.55%) and has a controlled amount of protein. Although the minerals in this food are restricted to reduce interference with the disease, the food is nutritious and healthy for dogs with kidney disease. Water can be added to the dry food, enhancing the smell and providing additional hydration.
Bonus: Prescription Dog Treats
Owners of dogs with kidney disease must be very careful about what treats their dogs get to have. However—pending your vet’s approval—this prescription dog treat option is appropriate for dogs with kidney disease. These treats support both kidney and heart health.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the symptoms of kidney disease?
A: Some symptoms of kidney disease may include lethargy, a need to drink often and frequently urinate, and decreased interest in food. If your dog has not been diagnosed with kidney disease but is experiencing these symptoms, it would be a good idea to take them to the vet to be assessed for kidney disease.
How do I get my dog to adjust to their new low phosphorous dog food?
If possible, the change should be gradual. Mix a little of new food in with the old food. Each day, increase the ratio of new food and decrease the old food until you are only feeding your dog the new food. If your dog does not seem to be taking to the new food, you may need to slow the process down. If all else fails and your dog still does not want to eat it, you may need to try a different flavor (if available) or add a liquid (such as tuna water) that has been approved by your vet.
In addition to meal adjustments, should I change the treats I give a dog with kidney disease?
Yes. Dogs with kidney disease should have their treats modified. Avoid giving them high-protein treats and “human” foods like cheese and processed meats. Carrots or green beans are healthier treat choices for dogs with kidney disease. Generally, dairy and salty foods should not be given to dogs with kidney disease.
Are there specific foods a dog with kidney disease shouldn’t eat?
In addition to foods that you would not feed a dog without kidney disease (such as grapes, raisins, chocolate, and foods sweetened with the artificial sweetener xylitol), you should avoid feeding a dog with kidney disease salty foods, cheese, and processed meats. Depending on your dog’s protein needs, you may also need to avoid feeding them proteins like liver and beef, which are comparatively higher in phosphorus.
How can I keep my dog with kidney disease from getting dehydrated?
Even with a plentiful source of clean water, dogs with kidney disease are more likely to become dehydrated. To help combat dehydration, dogs with kidney disease may benefit from wet foods or moistened dry foods in addition to plenty of water. Increasing the water content of their food can help increase their water intake in general.
By modifying their diet to one that includes a low phosphorous dog food, dogs with kidney disease and older dogs who may be at risk for kidney disease can have a higher quality of life. Taking preventative steps and following your vet’s directions can help your dog live a long, healthy life.
Make sure to consult with your veterinarian before modifying your dog’s diet in response to kidney disease. With the support of your vet, you can find out what type of diet would be most beneficial for your dog’s situation. Once dietary changes are made, your vet can help track your dog’s response to the new diet and guide you on any further changes you might need to make to help your pup.