Anemia is a symptom that occurs when the red blood cell counts or hemoglobin levels are lower than they should be. There are several possible causes, so it is important to know what they are.
What is Anemia?
Anemia is a condition that results in a reduction of the number of red blood cells, hemoglobin, or both, in the blood stream of dogs. It is not a specific disease but is the result of some disease process, a symptom.
Red blood cells are produced by the bone marrow and then released into the circulation. As the red blood cells age or become damaged, they are removed from the bloodstream and get recycled to form new red blood cells. The number of circulating red blood cells may drop if there is a decrease in production of them in the bone marrow, lysis (they are being destroyed), or if there is an increased loss of them from the circulation as seen with hemorrhage (bleeding).
Hemoglobin (a part of the blood) delivers oxygen to the cells and tissues of the body, and a dog who is anemic will show symptoms related to a lack of oxygen.
Since they’re responsible for the transport and delivery of oxygen throughout the body, a deficiency in red blood cells (low red blood cell count) can be potentially fatal. Anemia has a variety of causes, from trauma-related blood loss (blood loss associated with injury) to immune-mediated diseases (infection or cancer), and treatment is based on specific causes. Though severe anemia is life-threatening and requires immediate veterinary attention, mild cases can be easier to reverse or manage. Remember, if you think your dog may be anemic, get them to your veterinarian so the cause can be established.
Signs of Anemia in Dogs
- Exercise intolerance
- Whitish gums
- Lack of appetite
- Weight loss
- Blood in stool
- Blood in vomit
- Elevated heart rate
- Rapid breathing
Possible Causes of Anemia
- Sudden (acute) blood loss: This occurs where there is a severe loss of blood internally or externally usually due to a severe injury, surgery, or bleeding disorder.
- Immune-mediated disease: A condition in which the body’s immune system attacks its own red blood cells.
- Reactions to medications: Some dogs can react to medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These can cause gastrointestinal bleeding or ulcers in certain dogs which could result in anemia. Typically, these dogs will throw up something that looks like coffee grounds or will have black stools. Other medications may affect the production of red blood cells.
- Flea and parasite infestations: Ticks and fleas can contribute to blood loss from animals. The resulting loss of red blood cells can result in anemia, especially in puppies and smaller dogs.
- Exposure to toxins: Accidental consumption or inhalation of chemicals and poisons, such as zinc or rat bait, can lead to anemia as it spreads through a dog’s bloodstream and affects their red blood cells or ability to clot. Even worse: these toxins and poisons can be fatal.
- Non-infectious (chronic) diseases: Dogs with illnesses such as chronic liver or kidney disease, hypothyroidism, Cushings disease, and cancer, may also be at risk of being anemic.
- Infectious diseases: Bacterial infections, tick-borne diseases, and infectious diseases such as Babesiosis can also affect red blood cells and cause anemia.
- Nutrition and hormonal imbalances
How to Diagnose Anemia
If your pet is diagnosed with anemia, you may hear the doctor call it regenerative or non-regenerative. This is an important difference and can help determine how serious your pet’s condition is, what type of treatment they require, and will point to different causes.
Regenerative anemia is when the patient's red blood cell counts are low but the immature forms of the red blood cell are found in increased numbers. This means that your pet’s body is working over time to replace the blood cells that are being lost.
Non-regenerative anemia is when the patient's red blood cell counts are low and the body is not working over time to replace them.
As stated previously, treatment for anemia in dogs depends on the type and cause of the condition. Many causes of anemia can be treated, managed, or cured with the help of your veterinarian.
Your vet will examine your dog and perform tests to form a diagnosis. These will most likely include a complete blood count (CBC) with reticulocyte count (name for immature red blood cells), tests for parasites, evaluations of liver, kidney, and pancreatic functions, electrolyte tests to check for dehydration, a urinalysis to check for urinary tract infections, X-rays or ultrasound to look for internal bleeding, and other tests to rule out certain causes.
Treatment goals for dogs with anemia are to control bleeding, restore blood volume, find and resolve underlying causes of chronic blood loss, and provide supportive care.
How to Prevent Anemia
Although we cannot always prevent anemia, there are some measures that pet parents can take to reduce the risk of their dog becoming anemic. These include flea and tick management, accident and trauma prevention, keeping toxins like rat poison and ingestion of human medications (like ibuprofen and acetaminophen) away from your dog, keeping human foods like onion and garlic away from your dog, and keeping up with annual veterinary visits. Preventative care is just as important for pets as it is for their owners. Often, dogs will not show symptoms of a health issue, and at annual veterinary visits, vets can help detect and sometimes prevent disease and other life-threatening conditions including anemia early on.