If your dog appears anemic or your vet diagnosed your dog with anemia, you may be tempted to give your anemic dog an over-the-counter iron supplement. After all, the idea makes sense considering that iron supplements along with eating foods rich in iron are commonly part of the plan for treating anemia in humans. In dogs though anemia is quite different than in people, it's not a diagnosis nor a disease and it tends to occur secondary to medical conditions that require to be treated in the first place rather than a dietary problem. Before buying that iron supplement, you may want to read on, so to better understand why it's important to consult with your vet before trying anything at home.
True Iron Deficiencies are Rare in Dogs!
Dogs are carnivores and their bodies are built differently than in humans. In dogs, anemia caused by a lack of iron in their diet is virtually unheard of considering that their diet contains plenty of iron, explains veterinarian Dr. Fiona.
In dogs instead, iron deficiencies occur mostly secondary to some other medical conditions. What this means is that dogs need to be evaluated for what is causing them to become anemic in the first place in order to be properly treated. So the big question dog owners should ask their veterinarian is: " Dear doctor, so why is my dog anemic in the first place?"
Anemia is caused by low numbers of red blood cells, the cells that are responsible for carrying oxygen to all the dog's tissues and organs. With less red blood cells carrying oxygen, dogs start getting weak, lethargic, exercise intolerant, and their gums may become pale. Affected dogs will also have a high resting heart rate and increased breathing. So if dogs are likely not suffering from lack of iron in their diet, what could be causing them to become anemic in the first place?
Causes of Anemia in Dogs
In dogs, anemia may be caused by the dog's body either not making enough red blood cells or making enough quantities but losing them, or the dog's body may be actually destroying them (a catastrophic event called hemolysis). Let's see some brief samples of these happenings.
A possible cause for a dog not making enough red blood cells may occur because of underlying kidney disease. When dogs get older, their kidneys may no longer work as hard as they should. If the kidneys start slacking off in making sufficient amounts of erythropoietin, a special hormone that tells the dog's bone marrow to make enough red blood cells, there are chances that the dog may end up being anemic.
A common cause for a dog losing red blood cells instead is blood loss. When people think blood loss they think seeing their dogs bleeding from their noses or from an obvious wound, but blood loss can often occur silently and insidiously when it takes place internally. The number one place that dogs lose blood chronically is in their intestines, explains veterinarian Dr. Christian K. This can be due to ulcers, inflammation and cancer.
Another cause of internal blood loss is the presence of a hemangiosarcoma, a tumor which may grow on the dog's spleen or heart and that can cause internal bleeding into the dog's abdomen if it happens to rupture. Dog owners won't see any external bleeding, but affected dogs can become weak, wobbly, develop pale gums and an enlarged belly (ascitis).
Finally, destruction of red blood cells may occur as a result of an autoimmune disease where the dog's red blood cells are mistakenly perceived by the immune system as foreign invaders and are consequently destroyed. As one can imagine, this is a very problematic condition.
A Word About Iron Supplements
As seen, the causes for a dog to become anemic can be quite serious and even life threatening! You therefore don't want to delay seeing your vet to identify the underlying cause of your dog's anemia so to initiate proper treatment.
For instance, if the dog's body is not producing red blood cells as it should, there are no supplements that can help the body build those levels back up, other than a transfusion, and if the body is bleeding internally, then the source of bleeding must be found and stopped, explains veterinarian Dr. Bob.
It's therefore important once again finding the reason why a dog is not producing enough red blood cells and/or the source of blood loss so that it can be corrected. However, just because dogs develop anemia secondary to underlying causes and not because of diet, doesn't mean that they do not suffer from iron deficiencies.
Iron deficiency anemia happens in dogs and the most common cause is chronic blood loss, explain Dr. Heather L. Kvitko-White and Dr. Audrey K. Cook in an article for DVM360.
Once a vet determines the underlying cause of anemia and successfully addresses it, he or she may prescribe an iron supplement such as ferrous sulfate or Pet Tinic/Pet-Tabs Iron-Plus if there is a true iron deficiency. It's important to consult with the vet before giving any over-the-counter iron supplements because overdose can be fatal and dog owners may inadvertently purchase the wrong type. It's important to note that iron is toxic to cells when given in excessive amounts!
The best approach is to therefore to get a supplement through your vet considering that not all types of iron made for humans are absorbed well from dogs. Iron supplements won't treat the anemia, but can help provide affected dogs with all the essentials that their body needs to make more red blood cells, explains veterinarian Dr. Joey.Alternatively, the vet may provide the dog with iron dextran injection, but this can be painful as it must be injected in the muscle.
Generally, it takes several weeks of treatment for supplementation to replenish the normal number of red blood cells and treatment should be continued until their numbers return within normal ranges.
"One reason iron toxicosis is such an important problem is that the general public is often unaware of the potential toxicity of products that are considered natural and necessary for our health."~ Dr. Jay Albretsen
And What About Diet?
As seen, in dogs iron deficiencies from diets are virtually unheard of. In the 12 years, working as a vet, Dr. Christian K remarks that he has never seen a diet that causes iron deficiency in dogs, and would never expect to see that. So as long as a dog is on a nutritionally balanced, age-appropriate diet, iron deficiency from diet is close to impossible; however, the only exceptions to the rule are puppies and dogs fed certain fad diets.
Newborn puppies primarily rely on milk when they are young and milk contains very little iron. This is the reason why young puppies who are nursing are particularly vulnerable to parasites like severe flea infestations or hookworms, and can quickly develop an iron deficiency. On top of puppies, dogs fed unconventional diets such as an unbalanced homemade diet or vegan or vegetarian diets risk suffering from an iron deficiency, which is one reason why many veterinary nutritionists frown upon these unconventional diets.
So if a dog is suffering from an iron deficiency and should only be given supplements under the guidance of a vet, can adding any iron-rich foods help? Again, as with iron supplements, the best treatment is having what is causing the dog to lose or destroy his red blood properly addressed. Once the issue is addressed, the dog's body should catch up.
Among foods, since many dogs are losing their appetite, it's important to try to feed foods that may entice them to eat. Veterinarians carry several foods and supplements meant to help provide nourishment during illness. And what about feeding cooked liver? It might not really help in certain types of anemia, other than perhaps anemia caused by a nutritional deficiency, which as seen, is very unlikely unless the dog is eating an imbalanced diet. In that case, feeding liver may be an option, but it's always worthy asking the vet first!
For a dog with anemia, feeding boiled or baked liver in addition to the regular diet can help, but no more than one or two ounces daily. It's important to note in this case that liver is not a treatment; however, it's a source of iron and protein that can help the dog's body build new red blood cells, explains veterinarian Dr. Bob.
The Bottom Line
As seen, anemia is dogs is not a diagnosis nor is it a disease. Anemia in dogs occurs secondary to other medical conditions. Because anemia in dogs is unlikely to be caused by a nutritional deficiency, iron supplements and dietary changes are unlikely to help treat any conditions on their own. It is risky to try to do so, also because the wrong dosage and the wrong type of iron supplement can harm the dog.
Most cases of anemia in dogs are serious and must be treated based on the underlying cause, and that may include blood transfusions, antibiotics, steroids, medications to stimulates the bone marrow and diets for lack or appetite or underlying kidney disease.
Only once the underlying cause is addressed, the vet may decide whether it may be helpful adding an iron supplement or iron-rich foods to the dog's diet. So the bottom line is: don't waste time trying supplements or iron-rich foods until you see the vet and find the underlying cause. Only then, ask your vet whether iron supplements can benefit your dog.
- DVM360, Toxicology Brief: The toxicity of iron, an essential element