As humans, we tend to find blood, and anything related to blood, a little scary. This makes perfect sense on a psychological level, but it can sometimes mean that our brains shut down when we are confronted with anything to do with our dogs’ blood.
If your veterinarian has diagnosed your dog with anemia, or if you suspect that your dog could have anemia, this sense of panic can make it difficult to process the information you need to understand if you want to keep your dog healthy.
What Is Anemia?
Anemia is a little confusing. If you’re like me, you probably assumed that anemia was a specific disease. After all, we’ve heard people described as “anemic,” and so it is logical to assume that anemia is a condition with a treatment or cure.
The reality is quite different. Anemia is not a disease, but rather a condition that is often a symptom of a disease. The term “anemia” refers to a reduced number of red blood cells or hemoglobin (and sometimes both) circulating in your dog’s blood stream.
Red blood cells keep your dog’s body supplied with oxygen. Hemoglobin, which is the protein inside the red blood cells, carries oxygen, and red blood cells are also responsible for removing carbon dioxide from your dog’s body.
These cells are made in your dog’s bone marrow, and they circulate for about three months before they break down and need to be replaced.
What Causes Anemia in Dogs?
A wide range of diseases and conditions can cause anemia. Some of the more common causes include:
- Trauma-related blood loss, for example a car accident, that causes internal or external bleeding
- Immune-mediated disease, which cause the dog's immune system to attack the red blood cells
- Internal gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding, resulting from disease, inflammation, or medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Infectious diseases such as canine distemper
- Tick-borne diseases such as ehrlichiosis
- Blood loss from infestations of parasites such as fleas, whipworms, or hookworms
- Cushing’s disease
- Toxins, for example rat poison or lead poison
- Chronic diseases that affect or suppress red blood cell production
- Kidney disease
- Bone marrow disease
- Exposure to medications that interfere with red blood cell production
- Poor nutrition or nutritional imbalances
Your dog may also be predisposed to conditions or disease that can cause anemia. Know your breed and any health-related risks, and talk to your veterinarian about any symptoms of these conditions you can keep an eye out for.
What Are the Symptoms of Anemia in Dogs?
Anemia might be one of many symptoms of an underlying condition, or it could be the only symptom of the underlying condition, but either way, you need to know how to recognize anemia.
The most obvious characteristic of anemia is a change in color to your dog’s gums. Instead of a healthy pink, dogs with anemia often have pale pink or even whitish gums. Anemia also causes fatigue. Your dog may appear listless, and may tire easily during exercise and play.
You might also notice bruising on your dog's skin. This could be a sign of severe platelet loss or destruction, or even rat poisoning.
Dark, tarry stools, called melena, or dark blood in your dog's vomit or feces are also important warning signs of anemia and necessitate an immediate visit to your veterinarian.
How Is Anemia in Dogs Diagnosed?
One of the first things your veterinarian might do is ask for a history of your dog's symptoms and activities. This is especially important for cases where a dog may have ingested rat poison. Following a history, your veterinarian may recommend a series of diagnostics, including a blood test, fecal test, urinalysis, and diagnostic imaging tests like radiographs and ultrasounds.
Veterinarians have a few types of blood tests at their disposal. Some help determine the number of red blood cells in your dog's blood, while others can narrow down the type of anemia.
Perhaps the most common blood test is the packed cell volume (PCV) test. PCV measures the percentage of red blood cells in the blood stream. If the level is below 35 percent, the dog is considered anemic.
Another type of test, called a complete blood cell count (CBC), takes a look at the make-up of your dog’s blood, evaluating the individual components to give your veterinarian a better picture of what is going on. Your veterinarian could also perform a red blood cell count (RBC) and a hemoglobin count to get additional details.
Sometimes, additional tests are necessary to isolate the cause of your dog’s anemia.
A blood smear may reveal any blood parasites or abnormal cells, such as a high white blood cell count, which could indicate leukemia. Or your veterinarian may feel that a bone marrow biopsy or an aspiration is necessary to determine if the anemia is responsive or unresponsive.
Responsive anemia means that your dog’s bone marrow is actively trying to correct the anemia by releasing immature red blood cells, called leukocytes. These can also be identified on a blood smear and indicate that the anemia is responsive. If the bone marrow is not responding normally, the anemia is categorized as unresponsive.
Testing can also help determine if your dog is losing red blood cells or if your dog’s body is destroying the red blood cells, which is a type of anemia called hemolytic anemia.
Your dog’s overall condition and history could raise some red flags for your veterinarian, which may prompt him to run a urinalysis, biochemical profile, fecal parasite exam, or additional tests to determine the underlying cause of your dog’s anemia.
How Is Anemia in Dogs Treated?
Treating anemia is a two-step process. First, your veterinarian will need to assess if the anemia itself is severe enough to require a blood transfusion, and then she will make a plan for treating the underlying disease or condition. This may require further testing and monitoring.
The treatment options for the underlying condition will vary, depending on the disease, and could include medications or care involving corticosteroids, chemotherapy, or even surgery. Talk to your veterinarian about the treatment she thinks is best for your dog.
Is Anemia in Dogs Life Threatening?
Anemia in dogs can be caused by a wide array of conditions, from infectious diseases and autoimmune conditions to trauma and dangerous toxins. Since some of the causes are very serious, you should treat anemia as a serious symptom and contact your veterinarian immediately for further instructions. The prognosis for anemia depends on the cause and, if applicable, treatment.