Beyond 9 Lives: Anemia Can Indicate Other Problems

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This is a sponsored post by veterinarian Elizabeth Arguelles, owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. She writes weekly on Reston Now.

Anemia can be a serious concern for feline patients, and typically is indicative of a much larger issue.  The causes of feline anemia vary in origin, but it is essential to determine the root cause in order to effectively treat the anemia. If you notice symptoms of anemia in your furry friend, always contact your veterinarian immediately — don’t wait!

What is anemia?

Though not a disease in and of itself, anemia is a very serious condition that results from any of a number of different underlying disorders. A cat with anemia has fewer circulating red blood cells (RBCs), less hemoglobin (HB) or in some cases, reduced quantities of both. The condition ultimately deprives the kitty’s body of oxygen, because RBCs and HB are responsible for delivering oxygen to its cells and tissues.

Anemia can occur either due to a more rapid loss of existing RBCs and HB or the decreased production of new ones. As a result, anemia is generally classified as either regenerative or non-regenerative. In the first case, RBCs deplete too quickly or die too soon. In the second, the bone marrow does not produce a sufficient amount of replacement RBCs.

What causes anemia?

Because anemia is more of a secondary condition than a primary disease, the causes of it are diverse. In general, the diseases that cause anemia can be grouped into three distinct categories:

1. Those that cause blood loss. Said bleeding can result from trauma or injury to the cat’s blood vessels or internal organs, severe infestations by fleas, ticks or other parasites, tumors in the kitty’s intestinal tract, kidneys or bladder, or diseases that inhibit blood clotting.

2. Those that cause the breakdown and destruction of RBCs. This process, which is known as hemolysis, can be caused by autoimmune diseases, feline leukemia, the ingestion of chemicals or toxins, or neoplasia.

3. Those that decrease the production of RBCs through the suppression of bone marrow. This can happen due to ailments such as chronic kidney and liver diseases, nutritional imbalances or poor nutrition, or feline leukemia and the feline immunodeficiency virus.

What are the symptoms of anemia?

As was mentioned previously, it is extremely important to recognize the outward manifestations of anemia, as the condition can potentially be a signal that your cat is suffering from a life-threatening disease.

The most notable symptoms of anemia in cats are pale gums and lethargy. Others include increased sleeping, a loss of appetite, weight loss, a more rapid heart rate and even labored breathing.

If you notice any of these symptoms in your cat, do not wait! Contact your veterinarian or a 24-hour emergency center immediately.

How is anemia diagnosed?

Your veterinarian will perform a series of blood tests to determine the cat’s complete blood cell count (CBC). The most common specific test used to diagnose anemia is the packed cell volume (PCV), which is also known as the hematocrit. In the PCV, the blood sample is spun in a centrifuge.

The RBCs are thus separated from the plasma, yielding a specific concentration percentage. A healthy cat’s blood will have an RBC concentration of 25 to 45 percent. So if the PCV is below 25 percent, your cat is considered anemic.

When your vet has determined that your cat’s red blood cell count is low, it is important to figure out whether the condition is regenerative or non-regenerative. Based on the answer to that question, your vet will need to determine what underlying disorder is causing the anemia.

Since anemia has such a wide range of potential causes, further diagnostics will likely be necessary to reach a diagnosis. Possible diagnostics include but are not limited to testing for parasites and feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus, a biochemical profile and urinalysis to evaluate organ function, and/or radiographs.

How is anemia treated?

Anemia at any stage requires prompt treatment. In more severe cases, your cat will need a blood transfusion. This will alleviate the anemia and give your veterinarian more time to find and treat the underlying cause. By understanding the root cause of the anemia, the primary condition and the anemia can be treated.

What is the prognosis for anemia?

The prognosis for anemia is generally good if it is diagnosed early. But the long-term health of an anemic cat largely depends on the underlying cause, the cat’s medical history and its responsiveness to treatment.

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