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Anemia in Dogs – Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment
What is Anemia?
by David F. Kramer
Anemia is a condition that results from a low red blood cell count. Red blood cells, or erythrocytes, are the most abundant cells in the bloodstream and contain hemoglobin, which carries oxygen throughout the body. The saturation of red blood cells is referenced via hematocrit – and is expressed as a percentage. So, a hematocrit of 25% means that there are 25 milliliters of red blood cells per 100 milliliters of blood.
The hematocrit is determined by a blood test, which doesn’t actually directly measure this level, but calculates it based on the amount of hemoglobin in a sample. This test can also be done using a simple centrifuge process, as the red blood cells will collect at the bottom of a test tube after being mixed by a centrifuge.
A proper hematocrit level can vary for dogs depending upon their size, breed, and age, but generally range between 36-55% (for puppies, it is normal for the hematocrit levels to be lower than in the adult dog). When this level falls below a certain level, the animal is regarded as anemic.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
Types of Anemia in Dogs
According to Dr. Adam Denish, of Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Elkins Park, PA, “Anemia is categorized in many different ways, but there are two main distinctions: non regenerative and regenerative.”
“Regenerative anemia is when an animal’s bone marrow is trying to catch up with the anemia. For example, if an animal was losing blood through the GI tract from vomiting or diarrhea, the bone marrow should kick in and begin to create new cells,” says Dr. Denish
“If an animal has Leukemia or some other cancer, or a chronic disease such as kidney failure affecting the bone marrow and is losing blood, but is not able to keep up with it, then that is considered non-regenerative anemia.”
Causes of Anemia in Dogs
While anemia has many causes, according to Dr. Denish, it presents itself in three basic forms.
Blood Loss: Dogs can lose blood any number of ways, including through GI distress such as vomiting, diarrhea, and blood in the stool. They can also lose blood from abdominal tumors and masses in the chest, thorax, or other locations on the body. Bleeding externally as the result of a trauma is also a common cause of blood loss, but the bleeding would have to be severe of chronic to effect the hematocrit.
Production Problems: As red blood cells die, they are normally regenerated through the bone marrow. When the bone marrow is affected or otherwise working poorly, a dog’s system will be unable to keep up with this cycle of reproduction.
Destruction: In these situations, something in the body is breaking down or killing healthy red blood cells. Most of these are related to immune diseases and related conditions.
Symptoms of Anemia in Dogs
The symptoms of anemia range from the behavioral to the physical. A dog that is lethargic, weak, or intolerant to exercise could possibly be suffering from anemia. Since red blood cells carry oxygen, a lack or deficiency of them naturally causes less oxygen for normal bodily functions, much less the exertion of exercise.
If you feel your dog might be anemic, Dr. Denish suggests examining the eyes and gums of your dog. The conjunctiva, or the membranes in the upper and lower part of your dog’s eye, should be pink in color. If this membrane appears white or clear, this could be indicative of anemia.
A more common sign is pale gums. Your dog’s gums should also be a healthy, pink color. However, some breeds, such as Chows and Shar-Peis, have darkly pigmented gums, so you will be unable to tell from merely looking at them. When in doubt, get your dog to the vet for some bloodwork to be sure.
Treatment for Anemia in Dogs
The most important part of treatment for anemia, say Dr. Denish, is to find the cause. If a loss of blood is caused by something like a ruptured spleen bleeding into the abdominal cavity, then the treatment would be to fix or remove the spleen. Poisoning from rodenticides that cause bleeding can be treated with Vitamin K which helps with the clotting mechanism. “The underlying problem is the most important issue when it comes to blood loss,” says Dr. Denish.
“When we don’t know what the underlying cause is, there are two main courses of treatment. One is we give blood transfusions or platelets, or [two] we use certain medicines that help the blood count go up,” says Dr. Denish.
“The third would be the immune category, when the body is destroying the red blood cells prematurely. So we treat this by using immune modifying drugs, such as steroids, cortisone, or prednisone, that suppresses the immune system a while so that the red blood cells can catch up to their normal levels.”
Other immunomodulatory medications are sometimes used along with or in place of steroids in the case of red blood cell destruction.
Barking Blood Banks (Blood Banks for Dogs)
While you might not see dogs walking the streets with buttons saying “Pet me, I donated blood today,” the need for animal blood is a very real situation in the veterinary world. A dog might need transfusions for anemia treatments, as well as for minor and major surgery.
While most smaller veterinary offices lack the storage facilities and machinery necessary to maintain blood supplies, doggie blood is big business. Pet Bloodmobiles will often visit dog and cat shows to maintain their resources, and there are local and national pet blood banks that provide real and synthetic blood to veterinarians for use in their practices.
Dogs do indeed have blood types—in fact, they have 13 of them. Canine blood types are expressed by the acronym DEA (dog erythrocyte antigen), with a handful of subtypes for each category. DEA 1.1 positive is the most common type, and DEA negative for 1.1, 1.2 and DEA 4 are considered to be universal donors. Luckily, dogs have far fewer antibodies that would lead to a reactive rejection than humans, so in most cases, dogs can be transfused without determining their actual blood type—the first time. Subsequent transfusions will require blood typing, because while the first transfusion can slip by the body’s antibody resistance, the body can build up more antibodies and launch a rejection with the next transfusion, if the blood types are not matched.
Length of Treatment and Costs for Anemia in a Dog
The length of a course of treatment for anemia depends on the cause and severity of the condition. According to Dr. Denish, most cases of anemia are acute; that is, they come on suddenly. In the case of blood loss, there is generally a direct cause that needs to be treated.
“The only cases that are usually treated long term occur with the destruction process,” says Dr. Denish. “Some animals definitely have this issue and we treat them with medicines for three to six months. In cases of cancer or kidney failure, the animal doesn’t produce enough red blood cells. So there are diseases that have long term implications and animals might become chronically anemic.”
Treatments for anemia can be very costly. Transfusions are done in a hospital—a single treatment can cost several hundred dollars. Often, such treatments can involve an extended hospital stay with a cost of $3,000 to $5,000. If the anemia is caused by a bleeding tumor, the cost can be much higher because of the required surgery.
If the anemia is acute, and caused by something like an ingestion of rat poison, then it often can be treated with medicine for a few hundred dollars. Costs will vary depending on the severity of anemia, where you live, and whether you had to take your dog to a late night emergency vet (amongst other potential factors).
Prognosis for Anemia in Dogs
Without treatment, all cases of anemia will inevitably be fatal. Eventually, hematocrit percentages will become so low that the remaining blood cells will not be able to carry enough oxygen to perform basic life functions.
A sudden bleeding issue can drop this level to dangerous proportions seemingly overnight, or a slow bleed can chip away at hematocrit levels for months with minimal physical effects. Either way, it is imperative that you get your dog to a vet if he or she exhibits any symptoms that could potentially be anemia.
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