Detect Early Kidney Disease: Kidney Chek Interview

Below is the transcription for the interview with Dr Hillary Sweet from Kidney Chek.

You can listen to the full podcast episode here.


Amanda: Hey, guys, welcome back to another episode. This week, I am interviewing Dr. Hillary Sweet, who is one of the founders of a really cool new company called Kidney Chek, they started in 2019.

They’re local to Alberta, which is amazing for me. They actually started in Leduc, which is where I live and where my pet food store is, so I really wanted to talk to them about their company, because what they have created is a salivary urea test, and it’s just a little swab that goes in the mouth of your dog or cat, and you basically… It’s kind of like a pH tester scale that you test the strip against and you look at the color and it gives you a really great indication if you should maybe be seeing your vet sooner rather than later to have your pet’s kidneys checked further.

It’s not a replacement for veterinary medical care, obviously, but it’s a really great indicator for pet parents to know, “Mmm, Is something weird going on here”? And they’re really affordable. So I love them.

This is not a sponsored episode, it was just a company that I came across that I really wanna support and I wanna see them do well and grow, and I hope you really like this episode and that you learn something new.

0:01:40.2 AS: I’m joined today by Dr. Hillary Sweet, who started a really cool company, and I’m really excited to talk about this today. So thank you so much for coming on the show, Hillary.

0:01:49.8 HS: Yeah, thanks for having me.

0:01:53.1 AS: So I’m really excited about this because I think it’s gonna let us talk about two things that I really, really love, which is one is proactive pet care, which I think is so important, and the other is I just love to talk business with people, especially when they start a passion­based business, I think it’s amazing.

So, talk to me a little bit about your company, the brand, and how it all came to be.

0:02:12.8 HS: Yeah, so my co­founder, Matt and I actually met during our graduate degrees at the University of Alberta, and we were studying under a fantastic supervisor, he was chair of biomedical engineering at the time and a previous inventor himself, and so we actually had a really unique experience during our graduate degree, and we were focused on point of care, coming up with point­of­care diagnostics. And so the goal and really the vision that our supervisor had was getting results more quickly for people, either in a bedside manner setting and using those results to move forward more quickly with the treatment plan and whether it’s preventative or whether it’s improving their quality of care or their medication, things like that. And so that’s kind of where it all started.

We spent four years working on a point­of­care test that was simple and affordable in the research setting, and after we graduated, Matt and I really enjoyed working together, and I kind of said to him like, “Why don’t we go out and start our own company and find a problem that we think we can solve with another simple and affordable diagnostic?” Because we really saw the value inputting information into the hands of people who want to do something about it and have the ability to go and do something about it.

0:03:31.7 HS: So that’s kind of how the company and the vision started. And then what we found is, we just went out talking to a bunch of people in the pet industry, in the health industry, and what we found is as a startup and as two recent graduates, we felt that there was a lower regulatory in the pet space, and so we not only saw a need for having those point­of­care tests for pet owners, but also felt like we could do it with bootstrapping and kind of learning as we were going.

The clinic setting was a little bit more challenging and definitely more time­intensive for that regulatory component, and so then we just set out talking to a bunch of vets, went to conferences, talked to owners, large animal and small animal, and what we actually… One of the mentors that we still have, Dr. Merle Olson who is a… Started as a vet, saw all these problems in the livestock industry and has now invented over 50 products to help producers of large animals. He’s actually the one who gave us the idea of a saliva test that could be used to monitor kidney disease or kidney function of your pet. So that was kind of how we got this idea and we ran with it, and now we have Kidney Chek.

0:04:51.1 AS: That’s awesome. And that was, I think your website said 2019, right, that you really founded it?

0:04:56.9 HS: Yeah, yeah, we started the company 2019, and that was when we had kind of established our vision, and then we spent probably six to eight months going out talking to people and really diving in on what problem we thought we could solve.

0:05:12.0 AS: That’s super cool. So explain maybe a little bit for people who haven’t seen a Kidney Chek test, what is it, what’s the product that we’re talking about?

0:05:20.4 HS: Yeah. So it’s just… We kind of describe it similarly to a pH strip. So it’s a plastic strip, and then on the end of it is a little tiny little test pad, and so what it allows you to do is even in a cat’s mouth, where there isn’t a lot of saliva, we’ve designed it so that you just need a very small volume. So you just rub it along the animal’s gums, typically we recommend along the back of their gums where there’s a bit more pooling of saliva. And it usually takes five to 10 seconds, depending on how much saliva your cat or dog has. And then you start a timer and wait two minutes because it is a dye­based reaction that occurs, so the two minutes is really important, and then at the two­ minute mark, you just read the color of the test pad; for dogs there’s two and then for cats there’s just one.

So you’re just reading the color between a yellow and a blue scale, and that will tell you, we’ve correlated it with blood urea, and so it will tell you your pet is on the high end, we recommend you go to a vet or your pet is in what we call the normal range. There is a little yellow range that we suggest re­testing in a month if it’s kind of the high normal just to make sure that you’re not missing anything.

0:06:35.6 AS: Right, yeah, I actually did the test with my dog, my one dog and my cat yesterday. 

0:06:42.5 HS: Awesome.

0:06:42.8 AS: Before doing the test I wanted to have a really good idea of what it would look like for people. Yeah, the cat one, I didn’t realize how little saliva is in a cat’s mouth, really I don’t spend a ton of time in my cat’s mouth. I’ll brush her teeth and stuff occasionally, but I’m not looking for saliva, so that was a bit more of a challenge, but yeah, once you’ve gotten that back kind of pocket, it wasn’t too bad. And then my dog, I mean, dogs are pretty easy with saliva. Like there’s dog spit all over my house, I feel like. And they’re both in the normal range, which made me feel really good because they’re all senior.

0:07:09.4 HS: Awesome.

0:07:11.0 AS: My one dog, she’s 11, and my cat is… She’s a rescue, so we don’t really know, but she’s anywhere between 12-­15.

0:07:20.5 HS: That’s really great news because, I mean, it’s obviously kidney disease is a bigger issue in cats, it’s about one in three or 30%. And some of the papers that we’ve read actually say that like cats older than, kind of in that 15 year range, it’s up to 80% will have some kidney disease progression starting. So that’s great if your cat is still doing well and in the normal range.

0:07:46.0 AS: Yeah, I’m really relieved. I was happy to read that and I, yeah, I wanna talk about kidney disease specifically and focus on, well, why should pet parents even be worried about this? Because, you know, it’s kind of one of those things that if you know about it, you know about it, but if you don’t, it’s kind of this silent thing that never crosses your radar until someone says, “Holy moly, your animal is not doing well. This is probably kidney disease.”

0:08:08.1 HS: Yeah. And it’s really interesting because we have been, you know, talking with a lot of vets and a lot of pet owners for the past year, and if you’re talking to someone who is like really a cat lover and has had a few different cats in their lifetime, it is, we were very surprised with how many people have kind of said like, “Oh, we’ve had a cat pass of that.”

It’s very unfortunately quite frequent with cats especially, but I do find that because vets are just so busy these days that they don’t necessarily have the time to explain why they’re recommending the blood work at seven and older and why it is so important to do those monitoring steps. But also, the nice thing with Kidney Chek is that if cost is an issue or if time, or even if you can’t get your pet to the vet, this is something that it’s not a replacement for blood but it is like that next best option of if you can’t afford it or if you can’t get your pet there. Some cats are just terrified to go into the vet, then this is something that you can actually do at home as a screening tool to confirm like, “Okay, I really do need to get my pet in to the vet now.”

0:09:18.0 AS: Yeah, I think that’s a big barrier for people. A lot of the time when I talk to them, at least I find is that they want to provide veterinary care when it’s necessary, but obviously it’s expensive to go to the vet and if cost is a big factor for people, sometimes they’re gonna wait a lot longer than maybe they should because it’s just not an option. So at least if you’re testing and monitoring, then you can kind of start going, “Whoa, okay, we’re noticing things happening here. I need to start either saving up or planning to go to the vet.”

0:09:45.9 HS: For sure. And I think the other important aspect that some people might not realize is that the studies that look at even changing just the diet alone of a pet that has has kidney issues, you can extend, you know, or a dog, but with cats you can do a bit more once they have that progression started, you can actually extend the remaining life span by up to like three times. So, the earlier you catch it, the less of a cost increase you’re gonna need to put in to get your animal back on track and healthy. So that’s also another benefit of kind of catching it as early as possible. You get more time with your pet and you also avoid those really unexpected $1000 dollar visits where everything is just out of line for your animal.

0:10:31.4 AS: Yeah. And at that point when you’re talking emergency care, the cost is, that’s a big cost. Like if you think a regular vet cost is a big cost, then emergency care is a whole other level, as it should be. I mean I totally understand why it is, but yeah, anything we can do to prevent that is amazing. Now, let’s talk a little more about kidney disease and what maybe some warning signs are. Can you go over that?

0:10:54.8 HS: Yeah, so another thing that is really important to note is that your pet typically will suppress any signs of illness, especially cats because they’re, you know, naturally been out in the wild and any sign of weakness would be increasing their likelihood of being attacked or targeted. And so that’s one thing that we try to make really clear is that as a pet owner, even if you’re very, very, you know, you think you’re very closely monitoring your pet and you’re working from home because of COVID, you oftentimes will miss and there may not even be any signs that your pet is starting to have kidney issues.

The first thing that typically happens with chronic kidney disease in cats is that they will lose their ability to concentrate their urine. So that will show up in a urine test, it’s called urine specific gravity.

0:11:44.3 HS: And that will actually go down. And so what you may notice during that time period, not always, but you may see your pet trying to drink more and urinating more just because the kidneys aren’t able to concentrate the urine enough. And so that can lead to dehydration, hence why you’ll see them drinking more.

The second thing that happens is the urea and creatinine, which are two of the markers that your vet will test for in a blood panel, and they’re waste products normally expelled into the urine by the kidneys, but if the kidneys aren’t working well, then these will actually start to build up in the blood. And so we’ve found with our test too, they actually transfer over into the saliva. So the urea is actually what we’re looking for. So that’s kind of where Kidney Chek comes in to the progression.

0:12:29.8 HS: And then the last thing that you’ll see is once you’ve had much larger damage to the kidneys, then you’ll actually start seeing what’s called a leaky kidney and your cat will start showing protein in their urine, which should be remaining in the blood. And so there is a, you know, a urine test that you can look at for protein, but by that point it’s typically progressed and you know, your pet’s struggling with probably other things as well. So that’s kind of the progression that we like to try and walk people through just so they understand like blood in urine analysis is the best thing for your pet, but you can catch a buildup of those waste products with our saliva test as well.

0:13:13.2 AS: Right. Which I think is so great because from everything I’ve ever read about kidney disease, oftentimes by the time it’s caught, there’s not a ton you can do. Right? Like even managing diet, it’s more palliative at that point in time.

0:13:25.4 HS: Yeah. So every study will tell you something a little bit different, but if you’re seeing signs of your pet having kidney problems, then it’s probably 60­70% of their kidney is actually no longer working. And so it’s kind of like you said, you have all these other problems that can compound on that. And so that’s actually why blood work yearly after your pet is seven or older is recommended, if not earlier to get a baseline. But also, we recommend if your pet is seven or older that you use Kidney Chek every four months in between your vet visit. And for a cat, four months is actually equivalent to about a year of checkup for a human. So that kind of allows you to do something more frequently that’s 20 or $30 and it will tell you if you need to go back into the vet before that next scheduled visit. And so the idea there is really trying to catch it as early as it’s showing up to get your pet back on track.

0:14:27.1 AS: That makes sense. I was researching before we recorded this and one of my favorite integrated veterinarians, Dr. Karen Becker, has released a couple pieces of information on kidney disease over the past few years and one of the things that she really focused on was annual visits for cats, yeah, absolutely you need to be doing them, but sometimes there can be significant change within that year and cats will decline so fast that by the time you see them at that next annual, you might see significant damage to the kidneys.

And then the other thing she really highlighted, which I think is important for me to kind of mention to our listeners is that cats specifically because of their evolution, they’re different than dogs, obviously we know, but the big big thing with them is moisture intake. They don’t respond to their thirst drive the same way that dogs do. They don’t drink enough. And especially cats that are eating constantly, if the only thing they’re eating is dry processed food, they’re typically always in a state of mild dehydration, which is gonna be really, really hard on their kidneys. And so, I mean, ideal standard, I’m always a big, like let’s feed them biologically appropriate food is the first thing that we feed them. If that’s not an option, how are we including moisture in either canned food? Even just rehydrating kibble, all that kind of stuff is really, really important for kidney function.

0:15:41.5 HS: Yeah, for sure. I know kind of with that first step in the progression of kidney disease being, potentially dehydration because they’re not able to concentrate their urine, what you can also see is as the kidneys start to get damaged, if they’re dehydrated, then you don’t get that perfusion that you need of the kidney as well. So that’s where you kind of start to get the compounding damage. And then also when the waste products start to build up, I know with urea, you can start to see things like nausea or vomiting in your pet. So again, it’s like, it’s such a quick spiral that can happen with pets and before you know it your pet’s dehydrated and then they’re… More kidney loss because they don’t have the perfusion and their blood pressure’s thrown off and just all of these things that can kind of play a role in their, in keeping them healthy essentially.

0:16:34.7 AS: Yeah. So what animals would you really recommend are on Kidney Chek? You kind of alluded to obviously I think senior animals, anybody seven and over we’re gonna class as a senior kind of loosely. For younger animals, do you recommend it? What’s kind of, what’s your tagline on that?

0:16:48.8 HS: I mean, my take is that it’s never too early to kind of start that preventative monitoring, kind of like you mentioned that are super busy and we actually have had a number of vets want the idea of sending it home with pet owners to take that preventative step. But we reallydo see an increased value when the pet ages, because their risk of having that kidney disease start is just earlier. Now with that said, I do know a number of pet owners who have had pets at one, they were having troubles diagnosing them, they had chronic kidney disease, didn’t have any prior genetic predisposition that they knew of. So I think there’s lots of different cases where Kidney Chek could be a more accessible screening tool. But the main times that we are recommending it is when pet owners have a pet that’s seven or older or if they’re unable to get in for that annual wellness visit as kind of like I mentioned earlier, like the next best thing to blood work.

0:17:47.5 HS: And whether that’s having your vet use it or whether you’re comfortable using it at home, I think it’s a great tool. It’s definitely more prevalent in cats as we’ve been talking about, with dogs, it’s about one in 10. Every time we talk to someone it seems that there’s another application that they are interested in using it for. So, with dogs, pain meds are very common as they age. And so if your dog is on something like an NSAID a nonsteroidal anti­inflammatory drug, then that can actually lead to kidney disease or kidney issues presenting. And so, Kidney Chek is something that we know some shelters who are using as like if the pet owner can’t afford to do that blood screening every year to get their dog’s NSAID pain meds rewritten, then they’ll use Kidney Chek as like, let’s make sure at the beginning of prescribing this medication that their kidneys are still fine and let’s check it yearly, kind of in between. So that’s kind of a different unique application that we’ve found for dogs, but again, it’s more so with cats that we are trying to encourage it and just raise awareness right now.

0:18:54.7 AS: Yeah, and I think that’s, I mean part of the reason we recorded this in September is because September is National Cat Month, so I thought this is the perfect time and yeah, I mean it makes sense for cats as the primary, but I really love your point about proactive care is applicable for dogs and cats. And it’s not like it doesn’t happen in dogs. You said one in 10 in dogs and one in three in cats. So that’s, and that’s with animals obviously receiving veterinary medical care ’cause that’s the test sample that we have. So it’s always, those numbers are always interesting to me because I would probably wager that it’s higher in cats because especially with cats, not all of them are receiving regular veterinary care.

0:19:31.5 HS: Yeah. And I would definitely, I definitely agree with that. The other thing that is important to note and kind of again why we have focused more and see the value more in cats, is that with dogs when they’re diagnosed with kidney disease, it’s a much quicker progression. And so from the cases that we’ve kind of seen, it’s not, you don’t kind of reach that three times of their improving their remaining lifespan by three times. You have a a little bit shorter of a time period typically of what you can extend their life with a dog.

0:20:03.9 AS: So why is that? Are they just usually farther along? ‘Cause kidney disease has four stages, correct? So a dog’s typically farther along when they’re diagnosed, or…

0:20:13.2 HS: To be honest, I don’t know exactly why that is. I also have not myself read in­detail studies on the dog side, so I’m not sure if there’s maybe some skewed numbers in the studies or I don’t know if they looked at only changing renal diets, just typically from the vets that I’ve spoken with, it’s very common that if a dog gets that chronic kidney disease, they go downhill kind of within a year period, or there just doesn’t seem to be as much that you can do to get them back on like a healthy lifestyle. It’s like, I know with my childhood dog growing up, he actually had Lyme disease that had gone undiagnosed and within kind of like a two week span he was gone and just, it was a very quick progression. The Lyme disease led to kidney disease and then it just went from there. But I would have to check with the tech.

0:21:05.7 AS: So obviously you really focused in on kidneys for the beginning of your company. Are you thinking of expanding this into other diagnostics? How is that, what is that looking like?

0:21:17.5 HS: Yeah, a good question. I mean, our vision has always been simple and affordable diagnostics and like, just like we talked to people about kidney disease and everyone’s like, “Oh, I wanna use it in this application, I wanna use it in that application.” Everyone also seems to have a great idea of what they would like to see the next saliva test that we come up with be as well. So we have done a a little bit of kind of proof of concept on a salivary creatinine, but at the same time we are just really trying to focus on raising awareness about this first product and getting it out there, which my co­founder and I are both kind of engineering backgrounds and so the sales and marketing side of it has definitely been a huge learning curve for us, but we’re really trying to focus in on achieving that. What we end up doing after, we’re still kind of to be determined.

0:22:06.4 AS: Fair enough. And I think you hit on an interesting point because you don’t have a business background. Right? So that’s really cool. So it’s been like a big learning curve for you guys.

0:22:16.0 HS: Yeah, it definitely has been. I mean, fortunately everyone in the pet industry is so helpful and so willing to share advice and guidance and their experience, which has been really great. But it’s definitely been a learning curve, definitely been mistakes made, but yeah, we’re… Lots of zig zags in our path, but we’re getting there, lots of fun.

0:22:39.6 AS: Yeah. Yeah. It is really fun. And then you get to interact with dogs and cats all the time, which is awesome, I think, ’cause that’s what I obviously do for work. Do you have dogs and cats of your own?

0:22:49.0 HS: I have a dog.
0:22:50.0 AS: And then, does your co­founder have pets also?

0:22:52.6 HS: He doesn’t at the moment, no. But we also have Alicia that we brought on, she has four cats, so she’s got a few, well, one for each of us at least.

0:23:03.7 AS: Honestly, you’re covered on the dogs and the cats. That’s awesome. I feel like it’s an interesting case of like, you kind of got pulled into the pet industry because you found a need and a niche that you could work into, and now I feel like once the pet industry has its claws in you now you’re all gonna become like crazy dog and cat people.

0:23:20.3 HS: Yeah, I could see that happening. Definitely for myself, I did work with a little or did some fostering with a, an agency and I very quickly was like, “Oh, I’d like my own pet actually.”

0:23:31.0 AS: Actually I’ll keep one. That’s how it goes a lot of the time. A foster will… [laughter]

0:23:36.8 AS: I’m always like, it’s successful because I adopted out more than I kept, but we still kept a couple for sure. Awesome.

0:23:45.7 HS: How can you not?

0:23:47.2 AS: Right? They’re so cute. Especially like my one dog, she was a puppy when we got her, like four pounds, little like just, so cute! How do you not just keep them?

So where can people go to find you to learn more about your product? Where can they follow along with your journey as you go?

0:24:04.4 HS: Yeah, so we do have a website that we’re currently selling the product through, and that’s, you can find us at and check is spelled C­H­E­K, which is sometimes misspelled there. But you can find us on our website. There’s lots of information that we’re trying to get out there on some blogs that we’re putting together just to help raise awareness of kidney disease, how it progresses, what you can do for your pet early and kind of late stage if they have it. And we’re also on social media platforms as well. So we’re on Instagram and Facebook if you’re interested in following along with what we’re doing.

0:24:44.6 AS: Perfect. I will link all of that in the show notes and in the episode description on whatever podcast app you’re listening to this on, so you guys can find that there. It should be a clickable link so you can go follow along and see if you want to order Kidney Chek or find it. Are you guys at vet clinics as well now or is that not rolled out yet?

0:25:00.5 HS: We are just kind of redesigning our packaging. We got some great feedback from vets at the beginning, well, a few months ago now. And so we’re just getting our kind of three packs ready that vets wanted to sell to pet owners to go home with. And then we’re also looking to get into some retail channels right now, so maybe in the future people can come pick them up at, Bone & Biscuit in Leduc.

0:25:24.8 AS: Fingers crossed. That’s, I would love that. I think it’s such a nice tool. Like I, as someone who obviously is a retailer and a pet owner, I really see the benefit of both because for me and my own pets, I wanna be on it. I have all senior animals, like we always joke that we’re just like a retirement home at this point for animals, ’cause our cat is, like I said, she’s between like 12 and 15. Our one dog’s 11, our other one’s nine, and I have a 22­year­old horse. So we just, all the old ladies come to live with us at this point now.

And then as a retailer, it really offers this next level care option for people that, I mean, our customers, I see them bring when they bring a new puppy in, I see that dog all the way through. We’ve been open for seven years now, so I see them up into these aging points. Or if a dog comes in at midpoint, you know, obviously we’re seeing them go through these diseases and unfortunately, you experience that loss with the pet owners too. So to have that additional thing to say, “Hey, you’ve already had an animal,say, that’s struggled with kidney disease, here’s something that you can do.” I think that’s amazing. 

0:26:24.6 HS: Yeah. No, I definitely do as well.

0:26:27.8 AS: Yeah. Thank you so much for coming on this episode. I hope it’s really helpful for people and, thank you so much for your time.

0:26:34.8 HS: Yeah, thanks for having me, Amanda.

0:26:36.9 AS: Thank you for listening to this episode of Holistic Pet Radio. You can find more information about what we do and the show notes for this episode over at If you enjoyed what you heard, please subscribe to the podcast and leave us a review. It really helps us to reach even more pet parents. And remember, each one of us can make a difference, but together we can make a change.

0:27:02.5 AS: Disclaimer. The contents of this podcast are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding the medical condition of your pet. Never disregard professional advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have heard on this podcast.

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