What is glomerulonephritis?
Glomerulonephritis, also known as glomerular nephritis (GN), is a specific type of renal (kidney) disease characterized by inflammation of the glomeruli. Glomeruli are tiny structures in the kidneys that act as filters for the blood. Glomerulonephritis occurs when immune complexes (mixtures of antibodies and antigens) are filtered out of the bloodstream and become trapped within the glomeruli. When these compounds are trapped, the body responds by activating its immune defenses, resulting in further damage to the glomeruli.
What are glomeruli?
The glomeruli are microscopic structures in the kidney that filter toxins out of the blood. The glomeruli remove small toxins from the bloodstream and leave larger molecules (like blood proteins) in the blood where they belong. The filtration of these waste materials is the first step in the formation of urine. There are millions of glomeruli within the kidneys. When these structures are damaged, kidney function is greatly impaired. Toxins build up in the body, causing serious illness.
“Glomeruli in the kidneys filter toxins out of the blood.”
What causes glomerulonephritis?
Any condition that stimulates the immune system for long periods of time can cause glomerulonephritis. Some possible inciting causes include:
• chronic periodontal (dental) disease
• heartworm infection
• Ehrlichia infection (a tick-borne disease)
• Lyme disease (a tick-borne disease)
• pyometra (a bacterial infection in the uterus)
• endocarditis (a bacterial infection in the heart, often secondary to periodontal disease)
• chronically inflamed skin
• immune-mediated diseases (such as lupus)
• chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
• prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate)
In many dogs with glomerulonephritis, the cause cannot be found.
What are the clinical signs of glomerulonephritis?
When the filtering ability of the glomeruli is impaired, protein leaks from the blood to the urine. This causes an elevated amount of protein in the urine and a reduced amount of protein in the blood. Early signs of protein loss may include non-specific symptoms, like weight and muscle loss. More severe clinical signs are referred to as nephrotic syndrome (explained in the next section) and include fluid in the abdominal cavity, increased respiratory effort (due to fluid within the lungs), and swelling of the limbs.
“Chronic, severe glomerulonephritis can lead to the development of chronic kidney disease (CKD).”
Chronic, severe glomerulonephritis can lead to the development of chronic kidney disease (CKD). Symptoms seen in dogs with CKD include lethargy, vomiting, increased drinking, and increased urination (see handout “Chronic Kidney Disease in Dogs” for further information).
What is nephrotic syndrome?
In severe cases of glomerulonephritis, a complication called nephrotic syndrome can result from extreme urinary protein loss. Nephrotic syndrome is defined as the combination of significant protein loss in the urine, high serum cholesterol, low serum albumin (serum is the fluid portion of the blood), and edema or other abnormal accumulation of fluid. Patients with nephrotic syndrome have high blood pressure and may develop abnormal blood clots resulting in a variety of signs associated with blocked blood vessels or edema (swelling), especially of the legs or abdomen.
How is glomerulonephritis diagnosed?
To definitively diagnose glomerulonephritis, a biopsy of the kidney is needed. In most cases, urine tests allow the presumptive diagnosis of glomerular disease. Significant protein loss in the urine is typically found on a routine urinalysis. The urine may also contain hyaline casts, which are proteins that are in the shape of the renal tubules and indicate damage to those structures. A urine culture test is helpful to eliminate bladder infection as a cause of protein loss in the urine. A test called a urine protein: creatinine ratio can be performed on the urine sample to determine the actual amount of protein loss.
"To definitively diagnose glomerulonephritis, a biopsy of the kidney is needed."
Other tests that are necessary to complete the diagnostic workup include:
• complete blood count (CBC) to identify anemia, inflammation, infection, or low platelet count
• serum chemistry tests to identify low blood protein concentration and high blood cholesterol concentration
• blood pressure measurement to identify systemic hypertension
• radiographs (x-rays) or ultrasound of the kidneys to search for obvious masses or abnormal kidney shape and size
• kidney biopsy (not always performed)
There are many tests required to accurately diagnose glomerulonephritis, and it can take several days to a few weeks to complete the necessary diagnostic workup.
How is glomerulonephritis treated?
The ideal treatment for glomerulonephritis is determined by identifying the underlying infectious, inflammatory, or cancerous disease that is causing the immune system to create immune complexes that are being trapped in the glomeruli. Unfortunately, in as many as 75-80% of glomerulonephritis cases, no underlying disease can be identified, or if one can be identified, it cannot be cured.
Your veterinarian will recommend the best treatment plan for your dog. Some of the prescribed treatments for glomerulonephritis may include:
• immunosuppressive drugs to suppress immune complex formation
• anti-clotting agents or a low dose of aspirin, to prevent clotting within the glomeruli
• omega-3 fatty acid supplementation to reduce the inflammatory response and prevent clotting
• specialized prescription diets (in pets with kidney failure or hypertension)
• angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors such as enalapril, to minimize protein loss in the urine and to help control blood pressure
• medications to control high blood pressure
What is the prognosis for glomerulonephritis?
The prognosis for glomerulonephritis is based on your dog's specific condition and severity. In general, this is a potentially serious condition requiring extensive diagnostic tests and treatments. Your veterinarian will discuss a diagnostic and treatment plan for your dog to help you manage this serious condition.