Anemia in Dogs: Why You Need to Act Fast

By Chelsea Hunt-Rivera / June 4, 2018
Anemia in Dogs

What is Anemia in Dogs | Anemia Definition

The medical term anemia refers to a reduced number of healthy red blood cells or the levels of hemoglobin in circulation within the dog’s bloodstream. Many pet owners may assume that anemia is a specific disease in which it would have a definite diagnosis and treatment plan. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, anemia is most often a symptom of an underlying condition.

Anemia in Dogs

Anemic Definition

If a dog suffers from a lack of healthy red blood cells (or anemia), doctors refer to them as being anemic.

Anemia Causes

There is a wide array of underlying conditions and diseases that can cause anemia to develop.

The most common causes include:

  • Blood loss from trauma which causes internal or external bleeding
  • Autoimmune diseases, particularly immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (IMHA or AIHA)
  • Tick-borne diseases
  • Infectious diseases
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding
  • Kidney disease
  • Cancer
  • Bone marrow disease
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Cushing’s Disease
  • Blood loss due to a parasitic infestation
  • Chronic diseases that affect the production of red blood cells
  • Medications that interfere with red blood cell production
  • Poisons or toxins (such as ingesting rat poison or lead poisoning)
  • Nutritional imbalances or poor nutrition

Additionally, there are certain breeds of dogs that may be at a higher risk of developing anemia due to being at a predisposition for developing specific diseases. Therefore, dog owners should speak to their veterinarian regarding conditions and warning signs that they should look out for based on their dog’s individual needs.

Anemia Symptoms | Anemic Symptoms

Anemia is typically a symptom of an underlying condition. In fact, it may be the only symptom or one of

Anemia in Dogs

many depending on the specific ailment. Anemic dogs will often display clinical signs such as lethargy and fatigue. Your dog may tire more quickly than usual during playtime. This weakness is due to the fact that red blood cells carry oxygen which is necessary for all basic bodily functions. Furthermore, when there is a reduction in the number of healthy blood cells, even the simplest of tasks can prove to be exhausting for your pup.

Additionally, black-tarry stool known as melena is another clinical sign of anemia. The black-tarry stool (which is actually dark blood) is often paired with blood in the vomit. Both of these are serious warning signs of anemia.

Anemia in Dogs

While exhaustion is a clinical sign of anemia, it is non-specific, meaning that it is also a symptom of many other diseases. Perhaps the most common

symptom of anemia is pale or white gums.

White Gums

If a dog owner believes that their beloved pup may be anemic, the first thing they can do is check their gums. Healthy gums are pink in color. An anemic dog will have gums that are either very pale pink or even white in color.

Severe Anemia Symptoms

Typically, dog owners won’t have to second guess whether their pup has severe anemia. This type of anemia often results from serious trauma and the blood loss is very apparent. Often times severe anemia will require a blood transfusion. It is imperative for a dog with severe anemia (or a dog with any amount of blood loss) to see a veterinarian immediately.

What is a Normal RBC Count

Red blood cells should account for approximately 35%-55% of the dog’s blood.

What is a Low Red Blood Cell Count | Low RBC

Therefore, if the dog’s RBC is lower than 35% of the total blood count than they are considered to be anemic.

Anemia Diagnosis

There are several tests that a veterinarian will perform in order to accurately diagnose anemia. The most common test is the packed cell volume (PCV) or hematocrit (HCT) test.

HCT Blood Test (Hematocrit Blood Test)

Anemia in Dogs

Your veterinarian will administer the PCV or HCT test as apart of the complete blood cell (CBC) test. The hematocrit test involves processing the blood sample by using what is known as a centrifuge. In the centrifuge, the red blood cells are separated from the plasma.

Once the red blood cells are separated, the technicians will be able to determine what percentage of the packed cell volume (PCV) is made up of red blood cells. As previously stated, is the percentage of healthy red blood cells is less than 35%, the dog is considered to be anemic.

Define Hematocrit

A hematocrit is an instrument that measures the ratio of the volume of red blood cells to the total volume of blood.

Furthermore, a breakdown of the word comes from late 19th century: from hemato- ‘of blood’ + Greek kritēs, meaning ‘judge.’

RBC Blood Test and Hemoglobin Count

Your veterinarian may also administer an RBC blood test and a hemoglobin count during the CBC test in order to make a definite diagnosis.

Additional Tests for Diagnosing Anemia

In addition to the diagnostics performed during the complete blood count, there are several other important tests that veterinarians will often recommend.

A Blood Smear

A blood smear test will allow your veterinarian to determine whether a parasitic infection is causing the dog to be anemic. Additionally, the veterinarian can also use the blood smear test in order to reveal abnormal cell production such as a drastic increase of white blood cells. An increase of white cells is often an indicator of leukemia.

Anemia in DogsBone Marrow Biopsy

A bone marrow biopsy will allow the vet to determine if the anemia is responsive or unresponsive (also known as non-regenerative anemia).

If the anemia is responsive, it means that your dog’s body is actively trying to reverse the anemia. It will typically do this by releasing immature red blood cells into the bloodstream in an attempt to correct the deficiency of healthy red blood cells. These immature red blood cells are known as leukocytes. Leukocytes can also be seen on a blood smear test and are a positive indicator that the anemia is responsive.

Conversely, if the anemia is unresponsive (or non-regenerative anemia), the bone marrow has not detected and is not countering the abnormality in the blood deficiency. This can present additional, serious issues dependent on what ailment is responsible for the anemia.

Additionally, your veterinarian may recommend testing for biochemical profiles, a urinalysis, and a fecal parasite exam if the results are still unclear.

Biochemical profiles and a urinalysis will provide essential information on your dog’s organ function and electrolyte levels. A fecal parasite exam will allow the veterinarian to determine whether an intestinal parasitic infestation is causing the reduction in healthy red blood cells.

Different Types of Anemia

Through the necessary testing, your veterinarian will also be able to distinguish the type of anemia that your pup is facing.

For instance, anemia due to an iron deficiency is quite common among women and also exists in dogs (although not nearly as common). An iron deficiency in dogs is usually seen only secondary to some kind of chronic blood loss. In some cases, iron deficiencies are diagnosed in puppies with severe hookworm infections or puppies with serious dietary nutritional deficiencies.

Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia

One type of common canine anemia is autoimmune hemolytic anemia. In this particular form of anemia, the dog’s body destroys its own red blood cells.

With today’s technological advancements, your vet will be able to provide you with a better understanding of your dog’s red blood cell deficiencies.

Anemia TreatmentAnemia in Dogs

Treating anemia will vary based on the severity. For instance, in severe cases of anemia, a blood transfusion will be necessary. The primary reason for the blood transfusion is to keep the dog stable. The dog’s stability is crucial while determining the underlying cause of the anemia.

In all cases, anemia treatment will ultimately be based on the underlying condition.

Potential treatment plans include:

  • Corticosteroids
  • Anthelmintics (de-worming medications)
  • Chemotherapy
  • Surgery

(Just to name a few)

Because there is such a wide range of ailments that can cause anemia, it is imperative that your veterinarian diagnoses the underlying condition first and then begins an effective, efficient treatment plan.

Severe cases of anemia can be life-threatening. If dog owners recognize any clinical signs of anemia they should not wait to get their pup medical treatment. A timely diagnosis can be the difference between life and death in some cases of anemia in dogs.

A Final Thought on Anemia in Dogs

While severe anemia can be fatal, generally the prognosis for dogs with anemia tends to be positive. However, it is imperative that the underlying cause is promptly diagnosed. Ultimately, a definite diagnosis and prognosis will ultimately vary based on the underlying cause.

We know how scary it is to hear that there may be something wrong with your dog’s blood levels. However, by knowing the signs of anemia, pet owners can ensure that if a problem arises, they can act quickly and efficiently and get their precious fur baby back on their feet in no time.


Anemia in Dogs

Anemia in Dogs: Signs, Symptoms, & Causes


About the author

Chelsea Hunt-Rivera

Chelsea Rivera is a Dedicated Pet Parent who loves to create amazing content for pet owners and is helping change pet wellness as the Head of Content for