What is Hypokalemia?
Most of the potassium in the body is stored inside the cells. This allows for normal cellular function. Low levels of potassium change the concentration gradient in cells and therefore, electrical charges and signals will not pass through correctly and have a dramatic impact on cellular, tissue and eventually organ function.
The condition, also known as hypokalemia, low blood potassium will not always manifest in obvious symptoms, but has a distinct and potentially deadly effect on your dog's health.
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Symptoms of Hypokalemia in Dogs
Your dog may have a variety of symptoms manifesting and may vary from mild to moderate. Most will directly correlate to their muscles and movement. The most common symptoms include:
- Frequent urination and thirst
- Chronic constipation
- Stiff gait
- Plantigrade (walking not on their paws, but on the full sole of the back foot regularly)
- Loss of weight
- Loss of muscle mass
- Ventroflexion of the head (curving the head down towards the chest. Severe condition)
- Cardiac arrhythmia
Hypokalemia is a straightforward condition in that it is the lack of a vital element within the functioning system, yet it affects three muscle groups more thoroughly than others These three groups are as follows:
- Neurological - The electrical signals through the body are responsible for communicating conscious and unconscious activity from the brain to the rest of the tissues including willful movement like walking or regulated activity like breathing.
- Cardiac - Directly tied in with neurological function, chronic abnormal rhythms in the heart can directly result in death, but also frequently reduce functionality to a bare minimum.
- Skeletal Muscle - These are responsible for maintaining tension on the bones and frame. When these do not function properly or waste, your dog cannot stand or move normally which is why lethargy and unwillingness to move is the most obvious symptom.
Causes of Hypokalemia in Dogs
The condition is fairly straightforward in its manifestation, but there are three categories of causes:
- Loss - This happens when too much urine, feces or fluid have been lost. Often these are due to other conditions such as cancer or kidney disease.
- Redistribution - Problems with metabolism, barium poisoning, or diabetes can reduce potassium levels over time.
- Intake - Prolonged anorexia, insufficient potassium levels in food sources or a drastically reduced diet can create hypokalemia.
Diagnosis of Hypokalemia in Dogs
If your dog has been displaying any symptoms unusual to them, it is always best to check with your veterinarian. If you notice the symptoms developing over time, an increasingly stiff gait or muscle loss, bring them to the veterinarian for final diagnosis. Be certain to give your veterinarian a thorough history of your dog's health, symptoms, any past or present conditions, and diet.
A full physical will be conducted to evaluate body system functions to determine the extent of the problem. Your veterinarian will need to run blood tests to determine potassium levels, a urinalysis to determine kidney function and if it was a contributor to any underlying condition along with an EKG to see any effect on the heart. As mentioned, this condition can directly affect the heart muscles and their electrical signaling mechanisms at the cellular level which may translate to arrhythmia or even stopping the heart entirely.
Treatment of Hypokalemia in Dogs
The goal of treatment will be to raise the blood potassium to normal levels consistently and to correctly diagnose any underlying illness. Raising potassium levels will be done intravenously in severe cases, but for mild to moderate cases, this can be done orally using multiple supplements which will need to be adjusted based on your dog's response to therapy. Severe cases may require an overnight stay at the clinic with injections or infusions of potassium chloride or potassium phosphate, but such cases are uncommon.
It should be noted that patients receiving potassium chloride supplements - one of the most common supplements - should not also receive phosphorus supplements simultaneously as it has been proven that the combination of these two can have a negative effect on other trace chemicals-namely magnesium. While the condition itself poses a severe risk, treatment is relatively low risk and is non-invasive apart from the testing process, which will pose the extremely low risk of infection from needle point entry. If the underlying cause is not cancer or caused by redistribution problems, the prognosis for this problem is very good and, depending on the severity, recovery will be expedient.
Recovery of Hypokalemia in Dogs
Follow up appointments will be needed to determine the efficacy of the treatment - likely one every two weeks or so until your dog's potassium levels stabilize. One thing your veterinarian will be looking for is high levels of potassium - a spike to compensate for the low levels. This is not the desired effect.
Ask your veterinarian about signs and symptoms you should be on the lookout for to ensure your dog's system is not overcompensating for their recent low potassium levels-especially if their case was severe. Your dog will need a quiet environment and rest to recover from treatment and gentle exercise to slowly rebuild their muscle levels and motion capacity if wasting was an effect of their hypokalemia. Your veterinarian will discuss any recommended diet changes necessary. If this condition was a result of cancer, kidney malfunction or diabetes, additional treatment options would need to be explored and discussed with your veterinarian.