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Dog anemia occurs when there aren't enough red blood cells circulating in the blood to support normal bodily functions. Signs of anemia in dogs are related to a lack of oxygen and low blood pressure, both of which can make a dog feel tired. If you're concerned that your dog may be anemic, keep reading to discover more about what anemia in dogs is, the clinical signs and how it can be treated and prevented.
How Does a Dog Develop Anemia?
Normally, red blood cells are created in the bone marrow and circulate in the bloodstream for three to four months. The cells are removed from the bloodstream when they become damaged or old. Dog anemia occurs when either the bone marrow doesn't make enough red blood cells, the red blood cells are destroyed by immune-mediated or infectious causes or the body loses red blood cells faster than it can make new ones — as in conditions that cause severe bleeding.
Anemia may be either regenerative or nonregenerative:
- Regenerative: In regenerative anemia, a dog loses enough blood to trigger the bone marrow to make new red blood cells, but the red blood cell count is still too low. Regenerative anemia is caused by rapid blood loss, immune-mediated destruction of red blood cells or severe parasite infestations, all of which trigger the bone marrow to make more red blood cells.
- Nonregenerative: Nonregenerative anemia happens when a dog has a low red blood cell count but isn't making new red blood cells because their bone marrow is either damaged or has lost normal function of the hormones that stimulate red blood cell production. Nonregenerative anemia occurs in chronic diseases such as chronic kidney or liver disease. It can also be caused by infections parvovirus or ehrlichiosis that damage the bone marrow, nutritional or mineral deficiencies such as iron or vitamin B12 deficiency, drug reactions, or cancer.
What Are the Signs of Dog Anemia?
Clinical signs of anemia in dogs can include:
- Increased heart rate
- Pale pink or white gums
- Exhaustion, general weakness or lethargy
- Loss of appetite
- Heart murmur
In addition to the signs of anemia in dogs, your dog may also present signs associated with the underlying condition that's causing anemia. For instance, they might experience weight loss or oral ulcers if the cause is kidney disease, yellowing of the skin with liver disease, a swollen abdomen with cancer of the spleen or evidence of external parasites like fleas in parasite infestations.
How Is Dog Anemia Diagnosed?
Your veterinarian will conduct a physical exam and laboratory testing to determine if your dog is anemic and what might be causing it. Anemia is diagnosed when the packed cell volume or hematocrit (both measures of red blood cells) are low. A vet or lab pathologist can tell a lot from a sample of blood examined under a microscope, including accurate numbers of all types of blood cells, if the dog was exposed to toxins or heavy metals, if there are blood parasites, etc. If your vet determines that your dog is anemic but the cause isn't readily apparent, then they'll conduct further testing to determine the cause, which could include (but is not limited to) lab tests on body fluids, evaluating a sample of bone marrow, X-rays and/or abdominal ultrasound.
How Is Dog Anemia Treated?
Treatment of dog anemia involves replacing blood cells and treating the underlying cause. Traumatic blood loss can lead to shock, and in severe cases, dogs may require blood transfusions to treat a life-threatening loss of blood.
Otherwise, treatment of anemia will depend on the underlying cause. For example, parasitic worms are treated with a dewormer, iron deficiency is treated with iron supplementation, immune-mediated anemia is treated with immunosuppressive drugs and bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics.
Can Dog Anemia Be Prevented?
While you can't predict or protect your dog from every cause of anemia, you can take steps to lower your dog's risk of developing anemia. Tips to protect your dog against conditions that can cause anemia include:
- Having your dog examined by a vet at least once a year.
- Having your dog's stool tested at least once a year to check for parasites and using a monthly broad-spectrum dewormer to protect your dog against worms.
- Using effective flea and tick control during the flea/tick season (ask your vet for recommendations).
- Feeding your dog a high-quality, complete and balanced food that's certified by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).
Fortunately, in many cases, if the underlying cause of the dog's anemia can be treated, the dog is in otherwise good health and they receive prompt treatment, the prognosis can be favorable. If the dog is already unhealthy, the anemia is severe, or the anemia is due to cancer, toxins or immune-mediated causes, the prognosis is less favorable.
Dr. Sarah Wooten
A 2002 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Sarah Wooten is a well-known international speaker in the veterinary and animal health care spaces. She has 10 years experience in public speaking and media work, and writes for a large number of online and print animal health publications. Dr. Wooten has spoken in the veterinary education space for 5 years, and speaks on leadership, client communication, and personal development. Dr. Wooten is also a certified veterinary journalist, a member of the AVMA, and has 16 years experience in small animal veterinary practice. She serves on the Weld County Humane Society Executive Board and the Fearfree Advisory Board. In addition, she is a co-creator of the wildly popular card game 'Vets Against Insanity'. When it is time to play, she can be found skiing in Colorado or diving with sharks in the Caribbean.
Go big...or go home. To learn more, visit drsarahwooten.com.