Anemia in Dogs: Signs, Symptoms, & Causes

anemia in dogs

You have probably heard people described as being anemic or having anemia. This is not an uncommon condition among humans. But did you know that your canine can also be anemic? When it comes to anemia, there is a lot of misinformation available on the internet which can cause panic among owners. So if your veterinarian has diagnosed your dog with anemia, or if you suspect that your dog could have anemia, keep reading to get all the facts.

What is Anemia?

Most people assume that anemia is a specific or definitive disease, a condition with its own distinctive treatment and cure. However, the reality of anemia is quite different. The term anemia refers to a reduced number of red blood cells or levels of hemoglobin, in some cases both, circulating in your dog’s bloodstream. Therefore, anemia is typically the symptom of another disease.

Red blood cells, in both humans and canines, keep the body supplied with oxygen and are responsible for removing carbon dioxide from the body too. Specifically, the protein inside red blood cells known as hemoglobin carries the oxygen. These red blood cells are generated in the bone marrow and circulate throughout the body for approximately three months before the body breaks them down and replaces them.

anemia in dogsWhat Causes Anemia?

So if Anemia is not the principal disease, what can cause your dog to develop anemia? In fact, there is a wide range of diseases which can cause the development of anemia. Some of the more common causes include:

  • Trauma-related blood loss which causes internal or external bleeding, resulting from a car accident for example
  • Autoimmune diseases which cause your dog’s system to attack red blood cells
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) bleeding resulting from disease, inflammation, or medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Infectious diseases (i.e. canine distemper)
  • Tick-borne diseases (i.e. ehrlichiosis)
  • Blood loss from infestations of parasites such as fleas or hookworms
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Cushing’s Disease
  • Toxins or poisons such as rat poison or lead poison
  • Cancer
  • 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

Certain dogs may also be predisposed to conditions or diseases which can cause anemia. Know your dog’s breed and any resulting health-related risks. Talk to your veterinarian about the symptoms of these conditions to get a better understanding so you can keep an eye out for signs of developing diseases.

Signs & Symptoms of Anemia

While anemia is usually a symptom itself of another disease, it is important to be able to identify the condition as it may be one of many symptoms or the only symptom. Recognizing anemia can help save your dog’s life.

The most obvious and noticeable characteristic of anemia is a change in the color of your dog’s gums. Healthy dogs will have bright pinks gums while those dogs with anemia will have muted, pale pink gums. In some cases, an anemic dog’s gums may even appear to be white in color. A second place to look is inside the eyelids, which should be pink. The lining of an anemic dog’s eyelid will appear pale pink or white.

Fatigue is also a common sign of anemia. Your dog may appear listless or tire easily during exercise and playtime. Bruising on your dog’s skin can be a sign of a more serious root cause of developing anemia, such as severe platelet loss, destruction of red blood cells, or rat poisoning. Finally, dark and tarry stools, known as melena, in addition to dark blood in your dog’s vomit or poop can be extremely important signs of anemia. If you notice these symptoms, an immediate visit to your veterinarian is necessary.

anemia in dogs

How is Anemia Diagnosed?

When you take your dog to your veterinarian, there are a number of tests she may choose to utilize in the diagnosis process. First, however, he will likely ask for an extensive history of your dog’s symptoms and activities. This can be especially important for cases where your dog may have ingested something, such as rat poison. Once the history is known, your veterinarian may order a series of diagnostic tests including a blood test, fecal test, urinalysis, and diagnostic imaging such as a radiograph or ultrasound.  

When it comes to blood tests, your veterinarian has a few options at his disposal. While some can help determine the number of red blood cells circulating in your dog’s blood, others can establish the specific type of anemia your dog has. The most common blood test is called the Packed Cell Volume (PCV) test or Hematocrit (HCT). The PCV measures the percentage of red blood cells in the bloodstream. A result below 35% is considered anemic in dogs.

Another blood test known as a Complete Blood Cell Count (CBC) looks at the composition of your dog’s blood. The test evaluates individual components of the blood to give your vet a clearer picture of what is going on. Two of these components which are helpful in diagnosing anemia in addition to the PCV/HCT, is the Red Blood Cell Count (RBC) and hemoglobin.

Additional testing may also be necessary in order to isolate the specific cause of your dog’s anemia. A blood smear can reveal any blood parasites or abnormal cells such as a high white cell count, an indicator of leukemia. Your veterinarian may also order a bone marrow biopsy or aspiration to ascertain whether or dog’s anemia is responsive or unresponsive.

If your dog’s anemia is responsive, it means that his bone marrow is actively trying to correct the anemia by releasing immature red blood cells, known as leukocytes, into the bloodstream. Leukocytes can also be identified on a blood smear, indicating responsive anemia. However, if the bone marrow is not countering the abnormality, the anemia is categorized as unresponsive.  

Your dog’s overall health and history may raise some red flags with your veterinarian, prompting her to run additional tests such as a urinalysis, biochemical profile, or fecal parasite exam which can help to further determine the underlying cause of your dog’s anemia.

Types of Anemia

Throughout the diagnostic process, your veterinarian will not only be working to establish the cause of your dog’s anemia, but also the type. The most commonly known type of anemia is iron deficiency anemia. While this is a common disease in people, especially women, it is rare in dogs. Iron deficiency anemia only presents itself in canines as the result of chronic blood loss and in puppies being fed poor diets or with severe hookworm infections.

Testing can also help determine the cause of your dog’s decreased red blood cell count, particularly if your dog is losing red blood cells or if his body is destroying them. The destruction of red blood cells by the body is a type of anemia known as hemolytic anemia and is typically the result of an autoimmune disorder.

anemia in dogsHow is Anemia Treated?

Treatment of your dog’s anemia will require two steps. First, if your vet determines that your dog’s anemia is severe enough, he will order a blood transfusion to restore your dog’s health. Second, he will make a plan to treat the underlying disease or condition which resulted in your dog’s development of anemia. This may require further testing and monitoring to figure out.

The treatment of your dog’s underlying condition will vary depending on the disease your veterinarian has diagnosed your dog as having. Options could include medications or care involving corticosteroids, chemotherapy, or possibly surgery. Be sure to talk through the options with your vet carefully and work together to decide the best course of treatment for your dog.

Because anemia in dogs can be caused by a wide array of conditions including infectious diseases, autoimmune conditions, trauma and exposure to dangerous toxins, timely diagnosis is imperative. If left untreated, anemia can be catastrophic or even fatal. Therefore, you should treat anemia as a serious symptom and contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect your dog may have the condition. The prognosis for anemia greatly depends on the cause and applicable treatment options available at the time of diagnosis.

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