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Low Red Blood Cell Count in Dogs: Causes of Anemia

Why Your Dog May Be Acting Strange

By Lauren Leonardi. January 29, 2014 | See Comments

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A Dog Laying On His Stomach

Anemia in dogs occurs when the low red blood cell count falls to dangerous levels. There are several possible causes, so it's important to know what they are.

Anemia Sections

Your beloved pup is tired, not acting right, and has a really pale tongue. Your dog could have a low red blood cell count. In other words: anemia. Your vet will need to figure out why.

WHAT IS ANEMIA IN DOGS?

Anemia is either a dangerously low red blood cell count or a dangerously low hemoglobin level. Any red-blooded mammal, including humans, can get anemia. Low red blood cell count, or anemia, is not a disease in itself. Instead, it is a consequence of other medical problems and it can be very serious.

Red blood cells work to carry oxygen through the body, where all the body’s organs lay in wait. If the body’s organs don’t get the oxygen they need, they function below healthy levels.

WHAT IS AN ANEMIC DOG’S PROGNOSIS?

Anemia can usually be cured, but only by addressing the underlying problem. To treat anemia, you have to understand the symptoms, and identify its causes.

WHAT CAUSES LOW RED BLOOD CELL COUNT IN DOGS?

Different animals get anemia for different reasons. We humans often become anemic because of iron deficiency, but low-iron anemia is extremely rare in dogs. But no matter the specifics, there are three basic causes of a low red blood cell count, in dogs or in any other animal: the total blood volume is dropping, the body is not making enough red blood cells, or something is damaging the red blood cells or killing them off.

1. Blood Loss

Fast or slow, blood loss is the most common cause of anemia in dogs. If the blood loss is fast and messy and obvious, you won’t need the Internet to tell you it’s an emergency. But some bleeding is so slow nobody notices until the dog is anemic. An ulcer somewhere in the gastrointestinal tract, or damage to the urinary tract, is often to blame. Your vet can test your dog’s urine and feces for traces of blood.

Hookworms, other internal parasites, and digestive tract tumors are also common causes of hidden blood loss. Look for fleas and ticks, too, especially with young or very small dogs, since too many of these literal blood-suckers can occasionally kill.

2. Non-Regenerative Anemia

Red blood cells are made in the bone marrow. If the marrow isn’t working properly, or if the kidneys cannot make the hormone that triggers red blood cell production, anemia follows.

There are several possible causes:

  • Kidney failure
  • Diseases and cancers of the bone marrow
  • Infections of the blood (usually tick-borne)
  • Poisoning, especially lead poisoning
  • Radiation
  • Certain medications

Some puppies are also born with genetic or congenital problems that cause non-regenerative anemia. These issues are most common in Beagles, Giant Schnauzers, and Border Collies.

3. Hemolytic Anemia

Red blood cells don’t last forever, which is why the bone marrow needs to grow new ones. A dog’s red blood cells usually live about three months, and healthy bone marrow has no trouble replacing them as they die and break down.

If something starts killing off the red blood cells faster, though, hemolytic anemia results. There are several different kinds of hemolytic anemia, and causes include infections, especially tick-borne illnesses, poisons, drug reactions, and genetic problems. 

TREATMENT

Your vet is best equipped to find the right diagnosis for your dog, but this overview of anemia treatments will help you make sense of the process. What comes next depends on what caused the anemia, since different causes require different treatments. Severe anemia can be treated with blood transfusions until your vet can find and treat the cause.

The bottom line is that anemia is a serious, but usually treatable condition. Never ignore the symptoms of anemia, but don’t despair, either. Your pup has a very good chance of being cured.

More on Dog Health

5 Ways Dog Neutering Makes Your Pet Healthier
The Annual Vet Visit Cost: What to Expect
10 Must-Ask Questions at Senior Dog Vet Visits

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.

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Low Blood Cell Count at a glance

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  • 1Anemia is not a disease, but rather a symptom or indication of another illness.
  • 2Blood loss, either internal or caused by tumors or parasites, is the most common cause of low red blood cells.
  • 3Anemia is almost always treated by treating the underlying condition that caused the condition.