Anaemia means a shortage of red blood cells in the circulation. Anaemia is not a disease but it is a sign that there may be something seriously wrong in the body. There are many different causes of anaemia in cats and in most cases your vet will need to perform a variety of tests to work out what is wrong. Severe anaemia can be life-threatening and requires urgent treatment.
Red blood cells are important cells that carry oxygen around the body. Red blood cells are mainly made in the bone marrow but also, in the liver and spleen. Their red colour comes from a pigment called haemoglobin.
The red blood cells pick up oxygen whilst travelling through the lungs and transport this to the body tissues, where it is exchanged for the ‘waste gas’ carbon dioxide. The red blood cells transport the carbon dioxide back to the lungs where it is removed from the body in exhaled breath.
Red blood cells are active for around 70 days, after which they are removed from the circulation. Continuous production by the bone marrow ensures that the total numbers remain the same.
In the early stages, there may be few symptoms of anaemia. If the anaemia develops slowly it can become quite severe without the animal showing signs because the body has time to get used to the lower oxygen levels.
The first sign of anaemia may be low energy levels and general weakness due to reduced oxygen supply to the muscles. Anaemic animals often have a poor appetite. If you lift your cat’s lips you may notice that its gums are pale or even white, although do not be alarmed when you check your cat as gums in normal cats often look quite pale.
Your vet will need to examine your cat closely to identify the signs of anaemia. Depending on what is causing the anaemia, there may also be other changes such as jaundice (yellowing of the skin and membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth). A diagnosis of anaemia can usually be made on a single blood test, however your vet may need to perform a number of tests to find out what is causing the anaemia. It is important to establish the cause of anaemia in order to treat the underlying condition.