Anemia: What Is It?

Anemia is one of those medical terms that you may hear tossed around a bit, but what is it, really? I have always thought that knowing the origin of a word can help understand it, so let’s start there.

The Greek root ‘an’ means without, while ‘emia’ refers to blood. So we have ‘an-emia’ or without blood! Being anemic means not having enough blood to get the job done — not totally without, but close enough to make you sick.

How do you get anemic? There are really only three ways: you can lose blood (blood loss from a cut or nasty insects sucking it out of you), you can not be making blood (certain bone marrow diseases) or you can destroy blood cells (certain diseases and toxins that do this). The end result is the same: not enough oxygen getting to your tissues and things start to fail.

Veterinarians treat anemia in pets very frequently. There is a dreaded disease called immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (mercifully abbreviated IMHA) that causes no end of misery and suffering. In IMHA, the immune system becomes confused and starts attacking the body’s own red blood cells. It’s very hard to treat, almost impossible to prevent and (rarely) associated with recent vaccination. (Before you start calling your vet to object to vaccines, the association is unproven and vaccines have saved many many more lives than have been lost to IMHA).

As far as toxins go, both pennies (minted after 1982, when they started using zinc instead of cooper) and mothballs can cause red blood cells to pop and die, a process called hemolysis. Mothballs are an uncommon toxin because they smell and taste so bad, but we see young dogs that eat pennies all the time. We usually try and remove them with an endoscope, but sometimes they are so anemic from zinc toxicity that they need a blood transfusion.

One of the most horrifying and preventable causes of anemia is flea infestation. Fleas, when they come en masse, can drain a cat or dog of blood as swiftly as any vampire. One or two fleas, while still high on the yuck scale, won’t do much harm, but put hundreds of fleas on a kitten or a wee puppy and the next stop on the veterinary train is Transfusionville, population you! I have given lots and lots of transfusions to kittens and puppies for flea infestations and it’s not just life-threatening for the patient, but it is expensive for the owners as well.

Luckily, this is one type of anemia that we can prevent — and prevent easily! No dog or cat should ever have to get a blood transfusion again due to fleas. A simple monthly application of SENTRY Fiproguard MAX and fleas die by the thousands, and with amazing speed. For flea anemia, getting rid of the fleas is an important step in getting the patient back to feeling well, but prevention is even better. Don’t delay and risk having to ring up the blood bank and order a pint — that’s best done at your local pub.


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