What is Hemolytic Anemia in Dogs?

Kate Barrington
by Kate Barrington
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Although your immune system is supposed to protect you, in some cases, it can have the opposite effect. That’s what can happen if your dog has hemolytic anemia.

As you may already know, anemia is not actually a disease but a symptom of it. A medical term referring to a reduced number of red blood cells (RBCs), anemia has a number of different causes. Hemolytic anemia, also known as autoimmune hemolytic anemia, is the result of the immune system attacking and destroying healthy red blood cells and it can become very severe or even life-threatening. Keep reading to learn more about what hemolytic anemia is and how it can be treated.

What Are the Causes and Symptoms?

In dogs, autoimmune hemolytic anemia can be either primary or secondary – when it is primary it is also idiopathic, or it has no known cause. The dog’s immune system malfunctions and incorrectly produces antibodies that attack the dog’s own red blood cells. An estimated 75% of cases of hemolytic anemia in dogs are primary. Secondary hemolytic anemia is indirectly caused by an underlying disease or toxic damage that causes the surface of the red blood cells to become altered. The altered blood cells then become the target of the immune system and they are destroyed.

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One of the most common symptoms for hemolytic anemia in dogs is pale gums – this is in contrast to their normal pink to red coloration. Many dogs with anemia will appear lethargic or listless and they may tire more quickly than usual. Because there are fewer blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body, the dog may also faint or become confused as a result of poor oxygen levels in the brain. In order to compensate for low oxygen levels, the heart may beat more quickly, and the dog will breathe more rapidly. As the disease progresses, by-products of RBC breakdown will accumulate in the urine, causing it to develop a dark yellow color.

How is Hemolytic Anemia Typically Treated?

Hemolytic anemia is fairly simple to diagnose – all you need is a blood test called a complete blood count (CBC). One specific aspect of the test, the packed cell volume (PVC) or the number of red blood cells, is used to diagnose hemolytic anemia. If the results of the test suggest anemia, your vet may then perform additional tests to determine whether the condition is primary or secondary.

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From there, more tests may be required to identify the underlying cause of the issue. The results of these tests will inform your veterinarian’s decision when it comes to treatment. If your dog’s anemia is very severe, however, your vet may recommend a blood transfusion to stabilize his condition while other tests are run. In cases where no obvious cause can be determined, immunosuppressive drugs may be the only option to stop the destruction of red blood cells and improve your dog’s condition.

Hemolytic anemia is not an immediately life-threatening condition, but it can certainly progress to that point. If your dog appears listless or tires too easily for no apparent reason, take him to the vet. It is not worth taking the risk when these issues could be signs of a serious problem.

Kate Barrington
Kate Barrington

Kate Barrington is the loving owner of two cats (Bagel and Munchkin) and a noisy herd of guinea pigs. Having grown up with golden retrievers, Kate has a great deal of experience with dogs but labels herself a lover of all pets. Having received a Bachelor's degree in English, Kate has combined her love for pets and her passion for writing to create her own freelance writing business, specializing in the pet niche.

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