In order to increase a dog's red blood cell count, it is imperative finding out why the dog's red blood cells are plummeting in the first place considering that this condition can turn out being quickly life threatening. It may be tempting for dog owners to feed their affected dogs' foods that are rich in iron or iron supplements in hopes of raising red blood cells, but these remedies risk, not only not to work, but also delaying time in getting veterinary treatment when it counts the most. Only try these options under the guidance of your vet. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec explains causes of lowered red blood cell count in dogs and ways to increase them.
Low Red Blood Cell Counts in Dogs
Millions of erythrocytes (red blood cells) are made every minute in the bone marrow, a fatty tissue that occupies the interior of bones. All types of blood cells originate from a single kind of cell called a hemacytoblast. During the process of red cell formation, the original cell’s nucleus is lost and the cell becomes packed with the oxygen-carrying substance called hemoglobin.
Under normal circumstances, in healthy dogs, 35 to 55 percent of the blood should be red blood cells. If the red blood cells volume is below 35 percent the dog is considered to be anemic.
The term anemia is used to describe decreased number of red blood cells in the body. Contrary to popular belief, rather than being a condition on its own, anemia is a symptom.
What causes anemia in dogs? From parasites to commonly used cancer drugs, anemia can be due to a plethora of causes. In dogs, the most common causes are: massive trauma-induced blood loss, hemorrhages from bleeding tumors, autoimmune conditions where the body attacks its own red blood cells, certain blood parasites.
In a nutshell, anemia occurs due to 2 main reasons: the inadequate production of red blood cells or the excessive loss of red blood cells.
How long do red blood cells live? Typically, a red blood cell has a working life of a few months. New cells are made in the bone marrow. If sudden blood loss occurs, immature red cells, called reticulocytes, are released from the marrow. Your vet will look for these cells in a blood sample. When they are seen, the anemia is called regenerative.
When red cells wear out, they are trapped and removed in the spleen. Important parts of the cells, such as iron, are recycled for use in newly manufactured cells.
Signs of Anemia in Dogs
The signs and symptoms of anemia in dogs depend on 3 factors: the severity of the anemia, the duration of it (short-term or long-term) and underlying cause.
In dogs, the most commonly observed signs and symptoms of anemia include, impaired and difficult breathing, panting, exercise intolerance, weight loss and pale possibly white gums in dogs in the most severe cases.
The process of diagnosing anemia and determining its type requires several procedures:
- Complete blood count – to determine the anemia’s severity and evaluate the red blood cells characteristics.
- Reticulocyte count – to verify whether the body is responding and producing new red blood cells.
- Blood film – to check for blood cell abnormalities and parasites.
- Chemistry tests – to check the liver, pancreas, kidneys and blood sugar levels.
- Electrolyte balance – to evaluate the hydration status.
- Complete urinalysis – to evaluate the kidneys.
- Specialized tests (PCR) – to identify underlying infectious diseases.
How Can I Increase My Dog's Red Blood Cell Count?
The exact treatment strategy depends on the underlying cause and varies from simple course of antibiotics to dangerous and potentially life-threatening blood transfusions. Consult with your vet for proper diagnosis and treatment.
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Anemic dogs are usually deficient in iron, protein and vitamins. Generally speaking, anemic dogs should be fed diets and foods rich in iron, proteins, vitamin C and B-complex vitamins.
Iron: iron is the building block of hemoglobin. The most iron-rich foods that can be safely used in dogs include: calf liver, lamb meat, ox meat, tuna, sardine, anchovies, clams (without shells) and beans.
Proteins: proteins help anemic dogs gain more energy and strength necessary for easier recovery. The most protein-rich foods that can be safely used in dogs include: chicken, eggs, mackerel, rice, bream, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts.
Vitamin C: vitamin C promotes better iron re-absorption from the intestines. The most vitamin C-rich foods that can be safely used in dogs include: peppers, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower and cantaloupe.
B-complex vitamins: in general, vitamins from the B-complex are useful for speeding up the recovery process. The most vitamin B-rich foods that can be safely used in dogs include: pork kidneys, lamb brain, calf heart, mackerel, rice flour, oats, bananas, apples, watermelons, potatoes and sweet potatoes.
It is also advisable to encourage your dog to drink chicken broth (without salt and seasonings) instead of water. The chicken broth can be enriched with chunks of meat, rice, fruits or vegetables.
A Word About Liver
The number 1 food for anemic dogs is beef liver. Beef liver is around 10-100 times the level of nutrients when compared to muscle meat. It is particularly rich in proteins, iron, vitamins A and B and trace minerals. It should be noted that feeding too much liver too soon can cause gastrointestinal upset followed by diarrhea. Therefore, it is recommended to start by giving small amounts of liver (1/2 tablespoon per day) and then gradually increase the liver intake. Meanwhile you need to monitor the stool. If the stool becomes loose you need to reduce the daily liver dose. If the stool is normal it is safe to increase the dose.
Liver can be used either raw or cooked. Raw liver has more nutrients because the cooking process tends to remove some. However, raw liver can carry certain parasites and toxins so it is recommended to buy from respectable sources. Buying fresh, grass-fed liver is the best option.
Other foods and supplements beneficial for anemic dogs are:
- Green and leafy vegetables – they contain chlorophyll which promotes healthier blood.
- Phosphorus pellets – particularly good for treating anemia caused by intense bleeding.
- Milk thistle – promotes healthy hemoglobin levels.
- Herbs – burdock root, nettle and red clovers are good for anemic dogs.
Consult with your veterinarian before starting any dietary changes or introduction of supplements.
"Regenerative anemias might benefit from supplemental iron because iron is lost along with the red blood cells. Non-regenerative anemias won't benefit from supplementation because there's no lack of iron in this kind of anemia."~Dr. Michael Salkin
Can Anemic Dogs Get Blood Transfusions?
Yes, they can. Severe cases of anemia require blood transfusions. The only restriction preventing more widespread use of transfusions is the availability of canine blood itself. Like humans, dogs have different blood types. Compatibility between the blood of the donor and that of the recipient is vital to prevent a dangerous transfusion reaction. Many animal hospitals keep lists of donors – large, healthy dogs with owners willing to have their dogs donate blood.
For further reading:
- For further reading: Signs of internal bleeding in dogs Types of anemia in dogs Regenerative versus non regenerative anemia in dogs
About the Author
Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.