What Is Anemia in Dogs, and How Can You Help Your Pup if They Have It?
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The sight of blood—especially our dog's blood—can make us feel lightheaded or even a little queasy. But blood is vital, transporting vital oxygen and nutrients throughout our dogs' bodies.
The blood contains red blood cells, which are produced in the bone marrow and have a protein called hemoglobin that carries oxygen. When red blood cell levels drop, anemia can develop and may be life-threatening without proper treatment.
Keep reading to learn more about anemia in dogs, including what causes it and how to treat and prevent it.
What Is Anemia in Dogs?
Anemia is the loss, destruction, or decreased production of red blood cells (RBCs). Rather than being a disease unto itself, anemia is a sign of an underlying health problem.
Anemia is generally classified as regenerative or non-regenerative. With regenerative anemia, the bone marrow can respond to the anemia by producing more RBCs. With non-regenerative anemia, the bone marrow cannot make more RBCs.
Causes and Types of Anemia in Dogs
What causes anemia in dogs? The short answer is "a lot." For simplicity, the many causes of anemia can be grouped according to the four types of anemia: blood loss, aplastic anemia, methemoglobinemia, and hemolytic anemia.
Severe blood loss makes dogs anemic. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, dogs can go into shock if they have lost more than 30–40 percent of their total blood volume. Causes of blood loss anemia include trauma, surgery, internal parasites, bleeding disorders, cancer, and severe flea infestations.
Aplastic (Non-regenerative) Anemia
Aplastic anemia occurs when the bone marrow cannot produce RBCs. Causes of aplastic anemia include chronic disease (like chronic kidney disease), chemotherapy drugs, and nutritional deficiencies.
Methemoglobin is a form of hemoglobin. Methemoglobinemia occurs when there is excess methemoglobin in the blood. Causes include genetic diseases and chemical exposure.
Hemolytic anemia in dogs is the destruction of RBCs. It is commonly caused by an autoimmune disease called immune-mediated hemolytic anemia. Other causes include toxins, infections, and genetic diseases.
Signs of Anemia in Dogs
With fewer circulating RBCs, less oxygen is being transported throughout the body. Therefore, dogs with anemia have symptoms that are primarily associated with a lack of oxygen. Signs will vary depending on the underlying cause and its severity and duration.
Pale gums are one of the most obvious signs of anemia in dogs. Other signs include:
- Weight loss
- Dark, tarry stools
- Visible blood loss
- Reduced appetite
- Dark blood in vomit
- Variably sized bruises
- Eating non-food items
- Rapid breathing or heart rate
- Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes)
Diagnosing Anemia in Dogs
If your dog has signs of anemia, your veterinarian will need to determine the underlying cause. Diagnosing anemia involves a detailed history of the problem, a complete physical examination, and diagnostic testing.
A detailed history will give your veterinarian some initial clues about the underlying cause. On the physical exam, your veterinarian will look for signs of anemia, such as pale gums and rapid heart rate and breathing.
Blood work is key to determining the underlying cause of a dog's anemia. In addition to blood work, your vet might also perform:
- Bone marrow analysis
- Blood smear to analyze RBC size, shape, and color
Anemia Treatment in Dogs
Treatment for anemia in dogs is according to the underlying cause. In emergencies, when a dog has lost a significant amount of blood and is in shock, a blood transfusion is necessary to restore blood volume before treating the underlying cause. Other treatment options for anemia include:
- Parasite-killing medication (e.g., dewormers)
- Cancer treatment
- Bone marrow transfusion
- Intravenous fluids
Treatment may be lifelong for anemia caused by chronic disease. In some cases, anemia may be too severe for treatment.
Can Anemia Be Prevented?
Preventing anemia may be possible if the underlying cause is preventable. Consider these prevention strategies:
- Block your dog's access to toxic medications and chemicals
- Keep your dog on a year-round flea & tick preventative
- Take your dog for annual or bi-annual wellness visits
- Keep your dog on a leash during walks
- Manage chronic diseases according to your veterinarian's recommended treatment plan