Hypokalemia, or low blood potassium, is usually a symptom of chronic kidney disease (renal failure) or another medical condition. In mild cases, dogs might not display low potassium symptoms, but as the deficiency becomes more severe, low potassium in dogs can present as muscle weakness and loss of appetite.
Hypokalemia can be life-threatening. So, if your dog has a condition that might impact potassium concentration, it is important to recognize the symptoms and contact your veterinarian.
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Causes of low potassium in dogs
Treating hypokalemia is important to restore normal potassium levels in dogs, but it is also important to diagnose and treat the underlying condition causing the potassium imbalance. Kidney failure is a common underlying cause of hypokalemia in dogs.
The kidneys are responsible for filtering waste from the body, and they help to maintain a balance of fluids and electrolytes in the body. Kidney failure usually progresses gradually, and symptoms are easy to miss in the early stages.
Also, some dogs with malnutrition may experience low potassium levels. When refeeding an animal who is malnourished, electrolyte imbalances are fairly common. Phosphorous deficiency is most common, but deficiencies in potassium and magnesium can also occur. A veterinarian should monitor the refeeding process.
Diabetes is another condition that can cause hypokalemia and impact glucose levels. Administering intravenous fluids (called fluid therapy) that are low in potassium or chronic vomiting and excessive diarrhea might also cause hypokalemia.
Symptoms of low potassium in dogs
Potassium plays a critical role in muscle and nerve function as well as maintaining proper fluid balance. A dog with low levels of potassium may not display any initial symptoms when the hypokalemia is mild. However, severe hypokalemia can be life-threatening and can cause severe heart arrhythmias. Therefore, it's important to provide treatment as soon as you notice symptoms or metabolic changes.
One of the primary symptoms of low potassium is muscle weakness. An affected dog may have difficulty walking or getting up. In some cases, the dog may not be able to lift their head, causing them to hold their head down or causing the neck to bend.
Hypokalemia can also cause a dog to have the following issues:
- Poor coat quality
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
Diagnosing low potassium in dogs
Low potassium is diagnosed with a blood test and urinalysis. These are both important for diagnosis, but watch for symptoms such as increased thirst and urination. Unfortunately, there is no cure for kidney disease, and the damage is irreversible. However, with proper treatment, your dog can continue to live for years with a good quality of life.
Your veterinarian will recommend a diet that is low in protein and phosphorous and prescribe medications to manage high blood pressure and other complications. In addition, you should make sure to get bloodwork done as recommended to monitor kidney function and potassium levels.
Treatment options for hypokalemia in dogs
In most cases, hypokalemia is easily treated by giving your dog a potassium supplement, usually potassium gluconate, potassium chloride, or potassium citrate. Oral supplements usually take effect in one to two hours and stop working within 24 hours. Potential side effects include nausea or discomfort.
Monitor your dog and contact your veterinarian if symptoms of low potassium don't subside. Do not give more potassium unless directed to do so by your veterinarian because dogs can overdose as a result of high potassium levels.
Treatment for severe hypokalemia
If the potassium deficiency is severe, your veterinarian might decide to administer the potassium intravenously. This requires close monitoring, as correcting the deficiency too quickly can be a contributor to an abnormal heartbeat.
Depending on the cause of the deficiency, long-term supplementation might be necessary. Overcorrecting a deficiency, resulting in excess potassium, is also a cause for concern and can cause heart problems. Monitor your dog's symptoms and response to supplements and work with your veterinarian to evaluate blood samples to ensure your dog maintains normal potassium levels.
Hypokalemia, also called low blood potassium, is often a symptom of larger health issues, including kidney failure. First, your veterinarian will need to do a blood test and urinalysis to test for serious illnesses. In most cases, hypokalemia can be treated with potassium supplements, but the dosage must be monitored by your DVM (veterinarian) because excessive potassium can cause heart issues.