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Kidney diet- beyond controlled protein



A common misconception is that a kidney food is merely a controlled protein diet. In fact, this is not the case. Check out Fig 1. for a comprehensive list of the many characteristics of a kidney diet.


A kidney diet clearly offers many benefits, but at what stage after diagnosis should you switch them on to a kidney diet?

Kidney figure

Figure 1: Features and benefits of a kidney food

Let’s look at the current evidence

The jury is out on when to start a controlled protein diet- after all, high quality protein is still very important to maintain muscle mass in chronic kidney disease (CKD) patients.  There is grade 1 evidence to show we should be implementing a kidney diet in stage 2 disease or higher in cats, and in stage 3 disease or higher in dogs.1 The International Renal Interest Society (IRIS) also recommends a reduction in phosphorus intake in order to maintain a plasma phosphate concentration between 0.9-1.5mmol/l, in which case a kidney diet could also be beneficial in this stage.2  

The nutrition of k/d has been shown to improve and lengthen quality of life in both cats and dogs with CKD.3,4

The indication to feed a kidney diet to dogs is also influenced by the presence of proteinuria (in the absence of an active sediment) with a urine protein creatinine ratio (UPC) >0.5.2 In dogs that have proteinuria, underlying diseases need to be ruled out or managed. If the proteinuria is persistent, then these patients will also benefit from a kidney diet. Whilst it might seem counterintuitive to put a patient with proteinuria on a lower protein diet, proteinuria in itself is nephrotoxic, so minimising this is going to be important for long term outcome.


The IRIS guidelines have been updated to include symmetric dimethylarginine (SDMA) ranges for each stage of kidney disease. This test can help to identify kidney disease earlier than creatinine. Like any test it should be interpreted in conjunction with other laboratory results. The important thing to remember about SDMA is it is correlated with glomerular filtration rate (GFR). This means that if it is elevated you must rule out pre-renal (and post-renal) causes for this, such as dehydration. Click here to check out the IRIS guidelines.

What about IRIS Stage 1?

You may be wondering what to feed a patient with IRIS stage 1 CKD. I recommend ensuring they are on an age appropriate diet with controlled levels of sodium and phosphorus. Any of the Hill’s Science Diet Adult 7+ and 11+ diets are suitable options. If you know a particularly fussy pet then it may be worth considering transitioning them to a kidney diet even in stage 1. This is because it is much easier to get a patient onto a new diet when they are feeling well versus once they become uraemic and start feeling sick. In a study of 36 dogs with IRIS stage 1 kidney disease, 97% successfully transitioned onto k/d canine and ate the diet for the 1 year duration of the study.5

So what exactly are we hoping to achieve when we transition a patient to a kidney diet?

Therapeutic kidney food is the only therapy shown to improve and lengthen quality of life in both cats and dogs with CKD.3,4There are 4 main goals of nutritional management including:

  • Control signs of uraemia
  • Maintain adequate fluid, electrolyte and acid base balance
  • Provide adequate nutrition to meet energy needs and maintain lean muscle mass
  • Minimise progression of disease

What is the best way to get the pet to accept the new kidney diet?

  1. TransitionIt takes the gastrointestinal tract several days to adapt to a new food. For this reason we recommend a minimum transition of 7 days by slowly decreasing the portion of the old food and gradually increasing the portion of the new food. In particularly fussy pets I advise a transition of 2-4 weeks but in the occasional pet it may take 6-8 weeks! 
  2. Establish realistic client expectations- this is the most important tip. If a client expects a transition will take 6-8 weeks they are less likely to give up when Fluffy won’t eat the food on the first day.
  3. Start Early– It is much easier to get a patient onto a new diet when they are feeling well.
  4. Avoid food aversions– Don’t introduce k/d to a patient whilst they are in hospital. It is instead preferable to offer a wet mature adult variety food such as whilst they are in hospital. It is imperative that nausea is controlled before offering any food. Some cats need encouragement to eat; patting or gently stroking them as well as feeding them in a quiet room or up high so they feel safe can help encourage them to eat.
  5. Presentation– Cat’s like to be fussy and like us, they care about how their food is presented. Some cats get ‘whisker fatigue’ from constant stimulation of their whiskers, so offering food on a flat dish rather than a bowl can help to counteract this issue.  Ensure the bowl is cleaned regularly.
  6. Check for causes of inappetance– In patients with CKD, azotaemia and/or oral discomfort are common reasons for a pet to go off its food. Remember to look for an underlying cause of inappetance prior to labelling the food as unpalatable.

For tips on feeding the cat with CKD why not check out our blog on ‘Important considerations when it comes to feeding kidney cats’.

Dr Annabel Robertson BVSc (Hons) MANZCVSc MBA, Hills Technical Services Veterinarian

Annabel graduated from the University of Melbourne with honours in 2008. Since then she has worked as a small animal veterinarian in private practice in Australia and the UK. She also completed an internship in small animal medicine during this time and sat her membership in small animal internal medicine in 2012, and finished her MBA in 2015. Annabel joined the Hill’s team in 2015 as a technical services vet in Melbourne.

Dr Annabel Robertson


  1. Roudebush P, Polzin DJ, Adams LG et al. An evidence-based review of therapies for canine chronic kidney disease. J Small Anim Pract 2010; 51:244-252.
  2. International Renal Interest Society. Iris staging of CKD. Available at
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