Anemia in Pets: Causes, Signs, and Treatment


Like humans, pets can suffer from anemia, although it’s usually caused by something other than too many donuts. In fact, it’s much more common in cats and dogs than in humans!

Here’s what you need to know about anemia in pets, and how you can treat it.


What is Anemia?

Anemia is a condition characterized by a reduction in the number of red blood cells or less than the normal quantity of hemoglobin per red blood cell.

Red blood cells contain an important protein called hemoglobin that helps carry oxygen to all parts of the body. When too few red blood cells exist or when hemoglobin is lacking, tissue is not supplied with enough oxygen for adequate cellular function.

Symptoms include pale mucous membranes, rapid breathing, irritability, decreased exercise tolerance, tachycardia (a fast heart rate), weakness, shortness of breath, and low energy levels.

If left untreated, severe cases can lead to death due to organ failure. The most common cause of feline anemia is parasitic infestation with intestinal worms such as hookworms and roundworms.

Your pets living outdoors are more likely to become infected because they often ingest worms from their prey. 

A definitive diagnosis is made through a complete blood count test which will determine the numbers of red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and other factors found in your pet’s bloodstream.


What Types of Dogs Are Affected by Hemolytic Anemia?

Dogs that are mixed breeds may be at higher risk for hemolytic anemia, according to the American Kennel Club. Mixed breeds are those that are a combination of two different breeds; for example a Labrador Retriever with a Shih Tzu.

These dogs’ immune systems may not function properly if they have both sets of genes. Cats can also be affected by hemolytic anemia, as it is associated with the feline leukemia virus.

Some pets will develop signs at six months old, while others may show no symptoms until they are one year old. Other signs include enlarged spleen or liver, pale gums, blood in urine or stool, weight loss or decreased appetite, lethargy, and dehydration.

If your cat has any of these symptoms you should take them to the vet immediately. The vet will do blood work and urinalysis to confirm the diagnosis.

A bone marrow biopsy may also be performed to diagnose how severe the anemia is. Treatment includes transfusions of whole blood, packed red cells, or platelets (which help stop bleeding).

Oral iron supplements are given daily and injections of iron must be given weekly until levels normalize. The prognosis for recovery depends on how severe the animal’s condition was when treatment began.


How Does a Veterinarian Diagnose Hemolytic Anemia?

Hemolytic anemia can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms often mimic those of other illnesses. It is generally diagnosed with a complete blood count (CBC) test.

Hemoglobin concentrations are measured during this test. A decrease in hemoglobin levels causes the following conditions to arise: hypovolemia; decreased cardiac output; tissue hypoxia; hemorrhaging; erythropoietin suppression; increased excretion of protoporphyrin, iron stores, or both.

If pets have hematologic changes such as hemolysis that are severe enough to cause organ damage, your veterinarian may need to perform additional tests such as x-rays, ultrasound examinations, or computerized tomography scans.

Additional tests will depend on the degree of organ damage observed from diagnostic imaging and based on your pet’s history and physical examination findings.

The veterinarian may order a liver function test if there is evidence of liver damage or bile duct injury.

Abdominal radiographs might show evidence of abdominal cavity inflammation, rupture, peritonitis, perforation, obstruction, dilated bowel loops, and/or gastrointestinal hemorrhage.

Your veterinarian might also order abdominal ultrasounds if there is clinical suspicion of intestinal bleeding, obstruction, or volvulus. 


How Is Hemolytic Anemia Treated?

If your pet has been diagnosed with hemolytic anemia and requires treatment, it will need to undergo a plasma transfusion. The veterinarian will remove blood from the animal and replace it with fresh plasma that contains normal amounts of red blood cells.

With this life-saving procedure, it may take a few days for the normal levels of red blood cells to return to the bloodstream. During this time you should contact your veterinarian any time you see bleeding or bruising.

Bleeding gums are common after the transfusion as well. Other medications may be prescribed depending on what caused the anemia in the first place.

It is very important that you follow all directions given by your veterinarian carefully during this treatment process because if not properly administered, it can lead to other complications such as worsening symptoms or death.

Your pets may experience some mild discomfort while being treated, but this is perfectly normal and they will recover quickly.

As soon as your pet’s appetite returns to its normal level, food can be reintroduced gradually over the course of one week so that there are no digestive issues.

Dogs can resume walking about 15 minutes after their transfusion is complete, and cats should go back to normal activity within 12 hours.

Once the red blood cell count has returned to normal levels, pets who have undergone a successful plasma transfusion typically have an increased lifespan thanks to increased oxygenation.

They may also be less likely to suffer from infections as a result of these treatments because bacteria cannot survive in areas where there is plenty of oxygen present.


Tips for Pet Owners

If your pet is acting lethargic or their coat appears dull or thin, it may be due to an iron deficiency (which is more common in cats than dogs). They can develop it by not getting enough of the nutrient.

The best way to prevent this condition is to feed them a high-quality diet containing vitamin C and E. Cats who are fed exclusively on raw food diets might have trouble absorbing B12 and need supplements. 

Feline Anemia isn’t too uncommon with many breeds such as Burmese, Siberian, Siamese, and Persian being susceptible. Dogs are also at risk for feline anemia if they’ve had any kind of surgery that requires the removal of bone marrow from their bodies.

Talk to your vet about what foods you should avoid feeding pets who have a decreased appetite which can contribute to feline anemia!

Some signs that your cat has this condition include appearing weak, lacking interest in normal activities like eating and grooming themselves, listlessness, and lack of energy.

Your veterinarian will perform blood tests to diagnose anemia and then give treatments such as administering shots, transfusions, or IV fluids which usually help tremendously.

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