Hemolytic anemia in dogs is a type of anemia in which the otherwise natural cycle of red blood cells is sped up. Treating any type of anemia begins with figuring out which specific type your dog has. The progression of the problem, and the treatment, both depend on the cause.
What Is Anemia?
“Anemia” means a shortage of red blood cells in your pet’s body, which can have a serious negative impact on how their organ’s function.
Understanding the Natural Cycle of Red Blood Cells in a Dog’s Body
Red blood cells have one main purpose in canine (and most mammal) bodies: they carry oxygen to organs. Anemia can be caused by a few factors: the body may not be making new red blood cells quickly enough, the dog may experience some type of bleeding (either obvious or internal), or some organism or illness may be killing off the red blood cells.
What Is Hemolysis?
The unnatural destruction of red blood cells is called hemolysis. This condition can lead to hemolytic anemia. Hemolysis may be an inherited condition, or it may be acquired. Untreated, this condition can be deadly, but it can also be relatively harmless.
Treatment options and prognosis depend on knowing what specific type of hemolytic anemia your dog has.
Symptoms of Hemolytic Anemia
The basic symptoms of any type of anemia are pale gums, weakness, and lethargy. Severely anemic dogs are exhausted and have rapid pulse and breathing, even at rest. With severe hemolytic anemia, you’ll see a few extra symptoms as well:
- Red blood cells naturally break down into bile and hemoglobin. If too many cells break down at once, the extra bile causes jaundice, or yellowing of the eyes and unpigmented areas of the skin.
- The extra hemoglobin is excreted in the urine, turning it brown. Hemoglobin in the urine is called hemoglobinuria.
- You might find enlarged lymph nodes also, and your vet could find that the spleen and liver are enlarged.
Hemolytic Anemia Caused by Infection
Some diseases, such as ehrlichiosis, attack the red blood cells directly; the Ehrlichia organism is a parasite that lives inside the red blood cell. There are also bacterial infections that release toxins that kill red blood cells.
Diagnosing these diseases is sometimes difficult, and some are easier to treat than others. Fortunately some, like ehrlichiosis, can often be found at an earlier stage when they are easier to treat, before hemolysis even begins.
Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia
This occurs when the red blood cells are attacked by the dog’s own immune system, and is the most common form of hemolytic anemia in dogs past puppyhood.
Sometimes the condition is triggered by drug therapy or the presence of micro-organisms. One form of lupus also causes hemolysis. However, most cases are “idiopathic,” a technical term meaning that the condition arises spontaneously without a known cause.
Dogs with immune-mediated hemolytic anemia are usually 2 to 8 years old and female. Some breeds, notably Poodles, Irish Setters, Cocker Spaniels, and Old English Sheepdogs, are at higher risk than others. However, any dog of any breed, age, and sex can develop the problem.
Treatment of Hemolytic Anemia
Treatment involves corticosteroids and immunosuppressive therapy. In severe cases, blood transfusions can help get a dog through a crisis.
Sometimes a malfunctioning spleen is part of the problem, which is very series. The spleen can be removed, but the best medical treatment still only saves a little more than 60% of patients.
Congenital Hemolytic Anemia
There are at least two genetic problems that cause enzyme deficiencies which destroy red blood cells.
Since both deficiencies are caused by recessive genes, healthy animals can be carriers. When carriers mate, each puppy has a one-in-four chance of inheriting the gene from both parents and getting sick. The best prevention is to use genetic testing to avoid letting carriers breed.
The Bottom Line
Hemolytic anemia is the scary result of a number of different medical problems, but it is not always reason to panic. Even if there is no cure, there is always something you can do to make your dog’s quality of life better.
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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.