Did you know that cats can get anaemia, just like people? Anaemia is when there is a reduction of the number of red blood cells (RBCs) in the circulation. As RBCs are essential for transporting oxygen to the body’s organs. They also have a limited lifespan (about 73 days in cats), meaning they are constantly being replaced by new RBCs. Being anaemic can make your cat very unwell and, in severe cases, be fatal. You may have seen recent reports in the press about the mysterious illness that has affected hundreds of cats up and down the country, the “feline pancytopenia syndrome”. Which sadly has resulted in many fatalities. As a result, cat owners everywhere remain vigilant for any signs in their pets. As anaemia is part of this syndrome, now would be a good time for a refresher on the symptoms of anaemia in cats. 

How can I tell if my cat is anaemic? 

The signs of anaemia in the cat are the result of reduced oxygen supply to the organs. Usually, the first signs owners notice will be: 

  1. severe lethargy and 
  2. poor appetite. 

There may also be: 

  1. weird cravings where the anaemic cat starts chewing on cardboard or cat litter. This can be related to iron deficiency and is called “pica”. 
  2. The cat will also develop very pale gums, which owners can easily miss, but the vet will pick this up at the consultation. 

Any suspicion of anaemia and your vet will recommend blood tests to confirm this straight away. 

Why do cats become anaemic? 

The first thing to be aware of about anaemia is that it is a symptom, like a fever or rash, and not a diagnosis. Once anaemia is confirmed, your vet will need to do further tests to confirm the diagnosis. Which tests your vet selects will depend on your cats’ age, lifestyle, and medical history.

Anaemia can, put simply, arise through two mechanisms: abnormal loss of RBCs, or disrupted production of new RBCs. There is a wide range of diseases that can cause anaemia in cats. A study in the UK has suggested that the most common cause is infectious causes, followed by anaemia related to tumours, with anaemia associated with liver and kidney failure the third most common cause. 

What causes the abnormal loss of RBCs?

In the healthy animal, ageing and damaged RBCs are removed from the circulation by organs such as the spleen and promptly replaced. Anaemia results from premature removal of RBCs from the circulation faster than new RBCs can be produced. Examples include the infectious disease Haemoplasmosis, a parasite that lives inside RBCs and causes them to be removed by RBC waste disposal. 

Immune-mediated haemolytic anaemia, where the cat’s own immune system starts attacking the RBCs, also results in abnormal RBC loss. Traumatic blood loss is a less common cause of anaemia in cats. However, vets may need to look for evidence of hidden bleeding, such as a stomach ulcer. 

And what can cause the reduced production of RBCs? 

RBCs are produced by the bone marrow, which has the capacity to increase production when RBCs have been lost in the healthy cat. Several common illnesses in cats can suppress RBC production and result in anaemia. Feline Leukaemia Virus, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, Feline Infectious Peritonitis (feline coronavirus) and Feline Panleukopenia Virus all cause bone marrow suppression and can cause severe anaemia. 

Chronic kidney disease results in the reduction of the hormone erythropoietin, which is the signal for RBC production. Common cancers, such as lymphoma and multiple myeloma, can invade the bone marrow and disrupt RBC production. 

Can anaemia in cats be treated? 

The ultimate treatment of anaemia in cats will depend on the underlying diagnosis. In many cats, the anaemia is mild, doesn’t cause any problems and can just be monitored. Severe anaemia, however, can be life-threatening, and cats often need emergency treatment whilst awaiting the results of diagnostic tests. The most effective treatment for severe anaemia, whatever the underlying cause, is a blood transfusion. This procedure is becoming more and more commonly offered in veterinary practice. If your pet may need this treatment in the future, it is worth enquiring with your vet if they offer this service. And did you know that there is even a blood bank for cats in the UK, and your pet could be a suitable donor? Check out the pet blood bank for more information.

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