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This condition is caused by the loss or destruction of a large amount of red blood cells, which can happen in the case of internal or external bleeding caused by injury or a drug reaction, or a disease such as an immune-mediated disorder or cancer. Signs of anemia include tiredness, exercise intolerance (difficulty exercising), decreased appetite, and pale gums, though dogs with mild cases may not have any signs at all. A severe anemic may need a transfusion, and in all cases the underlying cause of the problem must be treated.
If your dog has anemia don’t panic. Though severe anemia is life threatening and requires immediate veterinary attention, mild cases can be easier to reverse or manage.
Anemia develops when the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream is reduced. Since they’re responsible for the transport and delivery of oxygen throughout the body, a deficiency in red blood cells can be potentially catastrophic to the entire system.
There are many causes and types of anemia, ranging from simple blood loss or the destruction of red blood cells within the body as part of a specific disease process to the inability of the body to produce enough red blood cells. Treatment varies based on the underlying cause.
Because red blood cells carry oxygen, which is essential for all basic bodily functions, the most common signs of anemia are lethargy and exercise intolerance. Decreased appetite and pale mucous membranes (the gums, for example) are typical as well. Mild anemia may not be evident except through blood testing.
Identifying anemia definitively is done in the laboratory. Most veterinarians can perform a quick blood test called a packed cell volume (PCV) in the hospital. The PCV indicates the percentage of red blood cells in the bloodstream. If a dog’s PCV is lower than the normal range, anemia is diagnosed.
Other blood tests can offer more detailed information regarding the anemia, such as whether the body is losing vs. destroying red blood cells and if it’s producing new red blood cells to replace them. Among these, the CBC (complete blood cell count) is the most common and critical. It evaluates the individual components of the blood, a fundamental first step in the evaluation of any anemia.
In dogs, the most common anemia-inciting processes include:
Diagnosis of these can be achieved with a battery of tests, including blood testing (such as a biochemistry panel), urinalysis, specific testing for tick-borne diseases, bacterial or viral infections and parasites, and imaging techniques like X-rays, ultrasound, and sometimes more sophisticated testing (such as CT scanning and the surgical biopsy of specific tissues).
All breeds of dogs can develop anemia, though some may suffer rare forms related to specific genetic diseases, such as hemophilia and other clotting disorders.
In cases of anemia resulting from either acute or chronic loss or destruction of a large amount of red blood cells, a blood transfusion may be recommended (or required) for survival.
As previously mentioned, severe anemia results in a significantly reduced ability of the blood to deliver oxygen throughout the body and, most importantly, to vital organs such as the brain. Therefore, a blood transfusion is necessary to help deliver oxygen and nutrients to major organs and other parts of the body. Occasionally, multiple transfusions are required before the dog’s body can produce enough red blood cells on its own.
Other treatments for anemia will ultimately need to be tailored to the underlying cause.
Certain causes of anemia may be preventable. For example, to reduce the risk of infectious diseases and vehicular trauma, proper containment or supervision of dogs when outside is considered essential. Vaccination and parasite prevention are also recommended.
This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.
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