What is Anemia?
Red blood cells contain hemoglobin, which transports oxygen throughout the body. A lack of oxygen in the body is a critical problem to the horse’s overall health. The normal percentage of red blood cells circulating in the horse’s body ranges within 30% to 40%. A horse with a packed cell volume (PCV) that is lower than 30%, is considered anemic. Anemia in horses can be an acute or a chronic problem.
Anemia in horses is a condition in which there is a deficiency in the bloodstream of red blood cells (RBC), hemoglobin, and in total volume. Anemia in horses may stem from blood loss, red blood cells being eliminated, or the body’s inability to produce red blood cells.
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Symptoms of Anemia in Horses
Symptoms of anemia in horses may include one or more of the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of energy
- Poor performance
- Elevated heart rate
- Pale mucous membranes
- Hair loss
- Shortness of breath
- Elevated heart rate
- Discolored or reddish urine
- Weak pulse
- Weight loss
Symptoms of equine infectious anemia may also include:
- Enlarge spleen and liver
- Swelling of the lower chest and abdominal wall
- Pregnant mares may abort their foal
- Sudden death
Causes of Anemia in Horses
- Loss of blood due to internal bleeding or trauma wound
- Immune disorder - neonatal isoerythrolysis
- Inflammatory disease
- Infection such as pneumonia or abscesses
- Kidney disease
- Bone Marrow disease
- Ingestion of toxic plant
Equine infectious anemia (EIA)
- The different stages of equine infectious anemia may be acute, subacute or chronic
- Horse is bitten by an infected horsefly, mosquito or deerfly
- Reuse of surgical equipment that has contaminated blood
- Transmission through syringes
- Blood transfusions
- Mares can transmit the disease to their foals through the placenta or by milk
Idiopathic anemia means there is no known cause.
Diagnosis of Anemia in Horses
The equine veterinarian will take a thorough medical history on your horse. He will go over the symptoms you have observed and when they commenced. The veterinarian then will perform a physical examination, which may include taking the horse’s temperature, and palpation of the abdominal and chest area.
If the veterinarian suspects that your horse is anemic he will recommend a complete blood count (CBS) which determines the red blood count and if there is an infection. A Coggins test will be suggested to rule-out equine infectious anemia. The veterinarian may also suggest aspiration of bone marrow; to check for bone marrow disease or cancer.
Treatment of Anemia in Horses
Treatment of anemia will depend on the diagnosed cause. If anemia is due to acute blood loss, the source of the injury or hemorrhage will need to identified and stopped. A blood transfusion may be needed for your horse. In all cases of acute anemia, restricted exercise will be required; the horse needs his rest
Patients with mineral and vitamin deficiencies or infectious illnesses may need added nutrition in their food, along with dietary supplements. Popular supplements for anemic horses rich in iron are fenugreek, multi-vitamin supplements, nettles and seaweed. B-12, in injection or in pill form, may also be recommended. Patients with infections will also be prescribed antibiotics. Once treatment starts, red blood cell count usually will return to normal within 2 to 6 weeks.
Horses diagnosed with cancer will have to undergo surgery and possibly chemotherapy. Medical treatments can also include chemotherapeutic drugs and radiation. Kidney disease may be treated by medications and supplements. If your horse was diagnosed with bone marrow disease, treatment may include immunosuppressive therapy.
Horses positive for equine infectious anemia are infected for life. There is no known cure or vaccine available. The horse should be branded and quarantined away from other horses. Equine infectious anemia is a fatal virus, your veterinarian may suggest euthanasia.
Recovery of Anemia in Horses
If your horse underwent surgery, he will need to remain hospitalized until he is stable. There will be a post-operative home care plan for your horse. You will receive instructions on how to change the bandages and how to properly clean the incision area. Antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medicine, and pain medications will be prescribed. Notify your veterinarian if your horse gets a fever, if there is redness around the incision, or if you horse is not eating. Sutures will need to be removed by the veterinarian.
It will be imperative for your horse’s health to follow the treatment plan the veterinarian has prepared. Follow-up visits will be required to check on your horse’s progress. A complete blood count (CBC) will need to be retaken, to recheck the red blood cell count.
Anemia Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
Our 4-5 year old horse was initially treated for Colic, with no improvement. Had a Coggins test which came back negative. The vet said she is anemic. She has loss of appitite, grunts and groans, breathing is a little rough. They put her on steroids, penicillin and iron suppliment. Still not improving. They are not sure what it is. Any ideas?
Anaemia may be caused by many different causes which may include an increase in destruction of red blood cells due to infection, immune-mediated conditions, blood clots as well as a decrease in production which may be attributable to bone marrow disorders, kidney disease etc… Horses don’t release reticulocytes from the bone marrow like in other animals, so it is hard to determine if there is a decrease in production without a bone marrow biopsy which isn’t a pleasant test. If not done already, a full blood panel may indicate a diagnostic path. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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