A low red blood cell count in cats can lead to anemia. In this post, our Baltimore vets share some insight on why your feline companion may have a low red blood cell count, how to increase red blood cells in cats, and more.
What do red blood cells do for cats?
Red blood cells are also called erythrocytes, and they move oxygen to your cat’s tissues. The hemoglobin (molecules) within red blood takes this oxygen to cells that use the energy your furry friend’s body needs to perform activities (think playing with that ball of yarn, jumping to heights and watching birds from your porch).
Carbon dioxide remains after this process is completed. If your cat is healthy, the red blood cells transport the carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs, where your kitty exhales it.
What causes low red blood cells in cats?
Your cat’s metabolism protects hemoglobin and red blood cells from damage. Disease can develop if there is:
- Poor metabolism
- Interruption in production or survival of red blood cells
- Interference in creation or release of hemoglobin
Red blood cells are produced in the bone marrow. In healthy animals, the total number of red blood cells remains constant over time. The creation, maturation and elimination of red blood cells must be carefully timed, as they have a limited life span.
These red blood cells will circulate for about two months before being removed as they age or get damaged.
Issues occur if your kitty loses too many red blood cells simultaneously or if production decreases. This results in a deficiency in red blood cells, which can lead to anemia.
Types of Anemia in Cats
In cats, there are two types of anemia: regenerative and non-regenerative.
Regenerative anemia can occur if the body is producing more red blood cells. This can be caused by:
- Blood loss (internal or external) from parasites, ulcers, accident, or tumors
- Toxins (from accidental ingestion of food, heavy metals, medications, or other substances)
- Hemolysis (when the body destroys red blood cells because they appear abnormal)
When the body is not making more red blood cells, non-regenerative anemia occurs. This can be caused by:
- Kidney disease
- Chronic diseases
- Bone marrow disorders
- Poor diet
Chronic blood loss can lead to iron deficiency, as can a deficient diet. Chronic blood loss is the more common culprit, as anemia due to iron deficiency is very rare in cats that eat a commercial diet (not home-cooked or vegetarian, as these may be low in the fat and/or protein your cat’s body needs and can result in serious health issues).
Signs of Anemia in Cats
Anemia is a result of an underlying condition or disease, but is not a specific disease in itself. In an anemic cat, the blood will carry less oxygen and you may notice symptoms such as:
- Pale pink or white gums
- Decreased appetite
- Increased breathing rate
- Increased heart rate
- Drinking more water
In severe cases, respiratory effort will also increase as your cat attempts to inhale more oxygen into the lungs to improve the level of oxygen in their body. Untreated anemia can be debilitating, and may become life-threatening in severe cases.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Anemia in Cats
The veterinarian will need to collect a Complete Blood Count (CBC) from your cat so it can be tested to tell him or her how many red blood cells, hemoglobin, white blood cells and platelets your pet has. This can also reveal the type of anemia.
Once the type of anemia is found, your vet can recommend other diagnostic tests depending on your cat’s symptoms to identify the cause of the anemia. Treatment will depend on the severity of the condition, as well as the underlying cause. In some cases, this may include a change in diet or medication, surgery, blood transfusion or other treatments.
How to Increase Red Blood Cells in Cats & Prevent Anemia
Because anemia in cats can have so many causes, it’s best to prevent it if possible. Ensure your cat is getting all the nutrients he needs in his diet, and reduce the risk of blood loss by scheduling routine exams to have him checked for parasites and other health issues.
Also, stay up to date on vaccines and parasite prevention. When it comes to treatment with blood transfusions, multiple transfusions may be needed before the cat’s body can create enough red blood cells on its own. If you need to boost your cat’s red blood cells, iron-rich foods may help.
What are good sources of iron for cats?
If your cat is found to be iron deficient, you can help improve his iron count by adding iron-rich foods to her diet, in addition to cat food brands high in iron. Iron supplements can also help.
Iron-rich foods include lean meat such as turkey, pork, beef and chicken (just make sure to trim the fat off pork products before feeding to your cat, as too much can cause pancreatitis). Fish also makes the list, as do eggs (with the caveat that eggs are an occasional treat and must be cooked well to reduce risk of food poisoning).
Always get your vet’s okay before adding any new food to your cat’s diet, in case more serious medical treatment is required or he has a food allergy.
If you notice signs of anemia in your cat, make an appointment with your vet right away. They can perform tests and develop a custom treatment plan, which may include actions you can take at home to help him recover.
Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.