CANINE STRUVITE BLADDER STONES
(original graphic by marvistavet.com)
There are many types of bladder stones, and each type forms under specific circumstances. In almost all cases, struvite bladder stones in dogs are caused by bladder infection with specially enabled bacteria. Not just any bladder infection can make a struvite bladder stone; the bacteria must be able to take the urea (the protein waste product for which urine is named) and break it down into ammonia and bicarbonate. The ammonia mixes with magnesium and phosphorus in the urine to make the mineral known as struvite, and the bicarbonate makes an alkaline urine preventing the struvite from dissolving. Staphylococci (often simply called Staph) and Proteus bacteria are the usual culprits, and they gain access to the bladder by simply crawling up from the lower urinary tract.
(original graphic by marvistavet.com)
Some patients with bladder stones show no symptoms of any kind and the stones are discovered incidentally but there are some symptoms that might promote a search for stones. Bloody urine, recurrent bladder infection (especially by the same organism and especially if Staphylococci or Proteus is cultured), or straining to urinate all would raise suspicion. Fortunately, struvite stones are “radio-opaque” which means they show up readily on radiographs.
Occasionally stones are simply passed and discovered by the pet owner. If this occurs, it is important to bring the stone to your vet's office for analysis, have the dog examined, and have radiographs taken to check for more stones. Patient care will be highly dependent on the stone's mineral composition.
WHEN TO SUSPECT STRUVITE STONES
Bladder stones come in several mineral compositions. The most common stone types are oxalate and struvite and since the approach is completely different for each type, it is crucial to determine the stone type. The stone type can be absolutely confirmed if a sample stone is available (either passed naturally or obtained via surgery, voiding urohydropropulsion, or cystoscopy). A laboratory analysis can easily determine the content of the stone and even determine if the stone consists of layers of different mineral types. Without a sample stone, there are still some hints that can be obtained through other tests that might help.
As mentioned, struvite stones in dogs are almost always formed because of the urinary changes that occur with specific types of bladder infection: almost always staphylococcal infection but occasionally a Proteus infection. If a urine culture from a patient with a bladder stone should grow either Staph or Proteus, this would make struvite more likely than oxalate. Also, struvite requires an alkaline pH to form while oxalate requires an acid pH to form; urine pH is a part of any urinalysis and thus provides another clue as to the stone identity. Another hint, is the presence of large smooth-looking stones. Struvite stones are usually large while oxalate stones tend to be jagged and small.
It should be noted that an educated guess is better than nothing but does not replace the actual analysis of a stone. (Remember, occasionally a stone of one type forms around a stone of another type. A complete analysis is needed to effectively prevent recurrence.)
HOW DO STRUVITE STONES FORM?
Struvite is the name given to the crystal composed of Magnesium, Ammonium, and Phosphate. (Struvite is also occasionally referred to as “Triple Phosphate” due to an old erroneous belief that the phosphate ion was bonded to 3 positive ions instead of just magnesium and ammonium.) Struvite crystals are not unusual in normal urine and are usually of no consequence unless they are accompanied by an infection with a bacterial species that produces an enzyme called "urease."
Urea is an important biochemical excreted in urine. When urine is infected with bacteria that are able to digest urea, urea is broken down into ammonia (NH3). Ammonia in water ionizes into ammonium (NH4+). Ammonia is toxic to the cells of the bladder wall and its presence generates inflammation (though the infection present also generates inflammation as well). The proteins released in the inflammatory reaction form a matrix which the struvite crystals use to form an actual stone. The reaction takes place only in an alkaline pH but the presence of ammonia creates just the alkaline pH needed for stone formation.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE ABOUT STRUVITE BLADDER STONES?
Struvite stone can be removed surgically, removed with a special technique called “voiding urohydropropulsion,” removed with a cystoscope (if they are small enough) or dissolved via diet.
If the stones present are small enough to pass, the bladder can be manipulated in a way to promote expulsion of the stone through the urethra. This is called “voiding urohydropropulsion” and involves filling the bladder, agitating the bladder so the stones float freely in the urine, and then generating a high pressure urine stream to force the stones out. The patient must typically be held vertically so that gravity may assist in the expulsion of the stones. This technique only works if the stones are small and the patient is not too large. Further, sedation or general anesthesia is needed. If there are numerous stones present, often several attempts are needed if this is to be the only means of removal. Often this technique is used to obtain a sample stone for analysis to determine if dietary dissolution is feasible.
Dietary dissolution of the stone is possible with struvite bladder stones. A special food called S/D Diet® is made by Hills for the specific purpose of dissolving struvite stones; Royal Canin makes a stone dissolution diet called Urinary SO®® and Hills C/D Diet® has now been formulated to dissolve struvite stones. The therapeutic diet must be the only food fed until the stone is dissolved. Antibiotics are needed as long as stones are present in the bladder (bacteria are encrusted within the stone and as the stone dissolves, they are released). On the average, 2-3 months are needed to dissolve the stone but the diet should be continued for a full month after the stones are no longer visible on radiographs because small stones may be present but not large enough to see. Stones may be dissolved in as short a time as a few weeks if they are small and the infection is controlled. Radiographs are taken monthly to monitor progress. S/D Diet is not meant to be continued as a regular diet after the stone has been dissolved; Hills recommends not feeding S/D diet any longer than 6 months. Royal Canin SO and Hills C/D, however, are fine for unlimited use. If a dry food is used, ideally water should be added to it; the extra water helps keep the urinary crystals diluted and able to dissolve.
Aside from the long treatment time, an important disadvantage of this approach is the possibility of urinary tract obstruction as the stone gets smaller and an unsuccessful attempt to pass the stone occurs. This is potentially a life-threatening hazard for male dogs as they possess the narrow urethra.
S/D diet is very high in fat and high in salt. It should not be fed to patients with a past or current history of pancreatitis, patients with heart disease, kidney insufficiency, or high blood pressure.
RECURRENCE OF STONES?
After stones are removed one way or another, the focus shifts to prevention. Often patients are somehow predisposed to bladder infection which means they are also predisposed to form more struvite bladder stones. A stone can form as quickly as 2 weeks after infection with a urease positive bacterium sets in.
After surgery, antibiotics must be continued until the infection is confirmed to have cleared (i.e. a negative urine culture is obtained). After this, a follow up schedule of radiographs and/or urine testing is recommended. For a single stone episode, only a few follow-up visits may be necessary. One must realize though that some individual animals are predisposed to recurring bladder infections and these individuals may form new struvite stones repeatedly. Obviously, if stones were to recur, a more regular monitoring schedule would have to be revised.
Dietary therapy to prevent new struvite stones is of secondary importance in dogs (except the English Cocker Spaniel, for which this is a hereditary metabolic problem rather than a matter of infection). The focus is on prevention of infection. If your dog has had a history of struvite bladder stones, be sure to discuss long term monitoring and understand what schedule of testing is best for your pet. Expect periodic urine cultures to be needed.
Page last updated: 10/10/2021