Anemia in Dogs

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Anemia is a condition that affects the blood of a dog. When red blood cells or hemoglobin are decreased within a dog, it is diagnosed with anemia but it is a result of a disease, trauma, or other condition, not a disease itself. A dog that has anemia have developed it because of something serious going on within its body so it is important for a pet owner to understand what it means when a dog has this condition.

What is Anemia in Dogs?

Red blood cells, or RBC's, are components of blood and are produced in the bone marrow of a dog. Hemoglobin, often abbreviated as Hbg or Hb, is a protein found in the red blood cells that is responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. It also makes the red blood cells red. If there is a lack of either red blood cells or the hemoglobin within the red blood cells then anemia occurs.

Signs of Anemia in Dogs

  • Weakness
  • Trouble breathing
  • Pale mucous membranes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weightloss
  • Increased heart rate
  • Easily tires
  • Blood in the urine, stool, or vomit
  • Bloody nose

Since red blood cells and hemoglobin provide oxygen to the rest of the body of a dog, a decrease of one or both items can cause a decrease of oxygen to various tissues and cells. If not enough oxygen is being delivered to tissues, a dog may have trouble breathing, tire more easily, not want to eat, and be weak. It is hard for a dog to have energy if it doesn't have enough oxygen in its cells. The heart rate of a dog may also increase as its body tries to compensate for the lack of available oxygen by pumping blood through the body faster.

Pale mucous membranes, such as the gums and in the genital areas, are a result of a lack of red blood cells or hemoglobin. If these items are not prevalent in the body, the mucous membranes will appear more pale than usual, or even white in severe anemic conditions. Dogs should normally have bubble gum pink mucous membranes, not pale pink or white. Mucous membrane color is very easy to monitor at home.

Finally, blood may be seen outside your dog's body if it has anemia. Sometimes bleeding occurs and is noticed in the urine or feces. Some dogs may even start vomiting blood or have bloody noses. These signs of bleeding can be indications that your dog has anemia or could potentially develop anemia.

Close-up of a puppy missing baby teeth with pink gums being shown by a man.
Dogs should have bubble gum pink gums. Getty Images/yellowsarah

Causes of Anemia in Dogs

Anemia can be caused by health problems that cause blood loss, red blood cell breakdown, or the decrease of red blood cell production in the bone marrow. There are several different diseases or conditions that can cause these things to occur in a dog.

  • Trauma: Severe blood loss most often occurs when there is trauma that results in excessive bleeding. Sometimes this trauma is a result of a surgical procedure, and other times, it's due to an injury. The bleeding may come from an internal organ or a wound in the skin which can cause anemia.
  • Parasites: Blood, intestinal, and external parasites can all cause blood loss in a dog and therefore cause anemia. Babesia is a blood parasite that causes hemolysis, or the breakdown of red blood cells. Intestinal parasites such as hookworms can cause anemia due to the damage they cause in the intestinal tract and blood sucking external parasites like fleas and ticks can also cause anemia if the infestations are bad enough.
  • Bleeding tumors: Some dogs have tumors that start bleeding. If the bleeding is not stopped it can cause anemia.
  • Blood clotting problems: Disorders that affect a dog's ability to clot its own blood when necessary can result in anemia if a blood vessel is damaged. Von Willebrand disease is one condition that can cause blood clotting issues and therefore anemia if uncontrolled bleeding occurs.
  • Autoimmune diseases: Diseases affecting the immune system of a dog can results in anemia. One such immune system disease is called immune-mediated hemolytic anemia. This disease causes a dog to produce antibodies that attack its own red blood cells.
  • Toxins: Some foods, medications, and chemicals can cause problems with blood clotting and in red blood cells. Onions, garlic, chemotherapy, and various rodenticides can also cause anemia in dogs.
  • Cancer: Unfortunately, cancer can cause a variety of secondary issues in dogs including anemia.
  • Poor nutrition: Most dogs eat a balanced diet that is formulated for their specific disease or life stage. But some dogs are so severely malnourished that they develop anemia as a result of bone marrow suppression.
  • Chronic diseases: Several different kinds of chronic diseases can cause anemia. Diseases of the liver, kidneys, and an infection of Ehrlichia are some of these common chronic conditions. These diseases cause the body to produce less bone marrow and therefore less red blood cells, too.
  • Hypothyroidism: Untreated hypothyroidism may cause a mild anemia in dogs.

Diagnosing Anemia in Dogs

Thirty-five to 55 percent of a dog's blood is made up of red blood cells. This percentage can be monitored by performing a test to check the packed cell volume (PCV) or hematocrit (HCT). This test involves drawing a blood sample and can be easily done by your veterinarian. It is often part of routine blood screening, and if the percentage falls below 35 percent, a dog is usually considered anemic. Your veterinarian will also perform a physical examination and other tests to determine the cause of the anemia.

Treatment of Anemia in Dogs

Since anemia is the result of a disease or condition affecting the red blood cells or hemoglobin in a dog's blood, the underlying issue needs to be addressed in order to correct the anemia. This may mean surgery, medications, nutritional support, or other modes of treatment for the specific issue affecting the dog. Acute, supportive care may also be necessary and indicate a need for a blood transfusion.

Anemia can be life-threatening if left unaddressed. If you suspect your dog has anemia you should consult your veterinarian as soon as possible.

How to Prevent Anemia in Dogs

Since anemia can be caused by a variety of different things, sometimes there is no way to really prevent it from occurring. Managing diseases and conditions that are known to cause anemia is often times the best thing you can do to help prevent anemia from developing. Aside from that, feeding a balanced diet, using regular parasite preventatives, doing your best to prevent injuries that could cause excessive bleeding, and regularly seeing your veterinarian for physical examinations and blood screening may help decrease the likelihood of anemia developing in your dog.