What are Blood Disorders?
The blood has three components: red blood cells (supplies oxygen to the body), white blood cells (protection from infection) and platelets (begins the clotting process). Among other duties, the blood is responsible for transporting oxygen to the various parts of the body, enables hormones to travel to various organs and tissues, and also is important for the elimination of waste products and carbon dioxide from the body.
Blood disorders in horses affect the way in which the body responds to various stimuli, trauma and other internal and external factors like infections and environmental issues. These blood components make up the immune system which was designed to maintain the health of the host during life cycles and protect the host from any internal or external assault on the body. Blood disorders can include diseases or conditions that can cause excessive bleeding response to cuts and trauma or excessive clotting issues that can cause thrombosis, emboli, and aneurysms in the various types of vessels all over the body and within any organ.
Blood disorders in horses are defined as a disruption or imbalance in the cells and plasma parts of the blood which affects the production of red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets.
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Symptoms of Blood Disorders in Horses
Blood disorders in horses can be noted at home in several ways:
- Delayed bleeding
- Bruising deep within tissues
- Bruising - small and superficial
- Black stools
- Prolonged bleeding at a surgical or injection site
- Blood clots
- Excessive and uncontrolled bleeding
- Defects present at birth (such as Ehlers-danlos syndrome which causes a protein connective tissue in the skin defect, resulting in weakened structural support of blood vessels)
While the types of blood disorders are varied, they basically fall into two categories:
Hemophilia A has been noted in a number of breeds of horses which include but are not limited to Arabians, Standardbreds, Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds
Excessive Clotting or Delayed Bleeding
For the most part, blood disorders are caused by some imbalance in the composition of the blood or in proteins that control how the bone marrow makes blood. These imbalances can be congenital (present at birth) or acquired (caused by external circumstances, whether trauma, diet, medications, infection or environmental). Some blood imbalances are normal responses to unusual events while others are due primarily to the imbalances in the blood itself. In some blood disorders, the blood may contain excessive or not enough particular cells, while other blood disorders involve abnormalities in the basic function of the cells.
Causes of Blood Disorders in Horses
The causes of blood disorders in horses include defects in the blood that was passed on by previous generations and those defects which were acquired after birth. In horses, the acquired types are more common than the congenital ones.
- Congenital clotting protein disorders - there are many proteins involved in this process and any of them can be defective - these will show up in your horse early in life and severe defects or abnormalities will likely result in death, either stillborn at birth or shortly after birth
- Acquired clotting protein disorders begin in the liver since that’s where they are produced - any liver disease can ultimately lead to lower levels of clotting proteins
- Platelet disorders involve the presence of too few platelets or the malfunction of the existing platelets - this disorder can be both congenital and acquired later in life and is generally found to include the immune system as one of the causes (it is noted, however, that the presence of too many platelets in rare in horses)
- Several examples of the malfunction of a portion of the blood system include the production of antibodies by the immune system which attack or destroy platelets or platelet-producing cells; or when this situation has been created by the use of some drugs and classes of drugs which retards the production of platelets in the bone marrow (estrogen, some antibiotics, aspirin, acetaminophen and penicillin)
Diagnosis of Blood Disorders in Horses
Your veterinarian will need to do some blood work to determine the balances in the blood components. A comprehensive blood composition test called a CBC will likely be done to determine this balance or imbalance. It will give your veterinarian information about the white and red blood cell count and platelets as well. Deficiencies or imbalances will be able to tell him if your horse is anemic or has an infection, as well as other types of conditions caused by imbalances. The CBC will not likely be able to provide your veterinary caregiver with clotting protein information as the testing for this is not sensitive enough to detect imbalances unless the horse’s condition is severe. Coagulation screening tests can be performed by your veterinarian to determine if a protein problem exists and which proteins are at the root. Between the CBC and the coagulation screening tests, the veterinary team will likely be able to determine which other body systems or organs may be involved, and determine if there is a viable treatment option.
Once the guilty factors are identified, a treatment plan can be developed and initiated. Frequently, a blood disorder will be found in the routine blood work that most veterinarians will do during the annual physical examination, especially those that are acquired. Congenital blood disorders will likely be found when those first blood tests are done after the birth of the animal unless an emergent situation arises during or shortly after birth.
Treatment of Blood Disorders in Horses
As is the case with the human body, the most important and best treatment for blood disorders in horses involves treating the root cause of the imbalance or disorder. In the case of a blood clotting issue that causes excessive clotting, it is vitally important to keep the blood circulating as normally as possible and the continuing with good supportive care. Your veterinarian will likely need to prescribe medications to dissolve or even prevent the formation of new clots. In some cases, blood transfusions have been the best and most effective treatment. In the case of anemia, you should expect that iron supplementation along with nutritional guidance will likely be the long term option of choice once the root cause of the blood loss or disorder has been determined and treated.
Recovery of Blood Disorders in Horses
If your horse has a congenital blood defect, depending on the defect, the animal’s life expectancy will be quite short. Many horses with congenital blood disorders are stillborn while others succumb shortly after birth. If the blood defect is acquired and the root cause can be determined, there are treatment options that will likely be able to remedy the cause in the short term and a treatment regimen may be recommended in the long term to keep it under control. The goal is to correct or modify the underlying cause so that the blood is flowing to all bodily tissues in a quantity and quality that is sufficient to keep your horse healthy and productive. These long term treatment regimens will likely require more supportive care and adjustments to be made within the horse’s living and working environment.