Anemia – Where Did Those Red Blood Cells Go!

Any animal that has red blood cells can present with anemia (a reduction in red blood cells), so of course that means most creatures on this planet!

But why does it happen and should you be worried and what do you do about it?

How is Anemia Defined?

Each species, be it bird, rabbit or snake, has a specific expected range of normal for the red blood cells (RBC). We look at the PCV (Packed Cell Volume) to determine the percentage of RBC present in the blood.

A Golden Eagle has a normal range of 35-47% while a Red Eared Slider can have anywhere from 25-35%. In order to know something is wrong, we have to know what the normal range is…but we can get an idea by looking at similar animals if we don’t have any numbers to work with. You can see that a turtle has an overall lower range than an eagle.

Anemia is simply having fewer than expected RBC or a lower PCV. It can be mild (30% in a rabbit) or severe (12% in a cockatiel) or anywhere in between depending on the cause and the duration of illness.
What Causes Anemia?

There are 3 basic causes of anemia.

– Loss of RBC
– Lack of Production of RBC
– Destruction of RBC


In the exotics world we are lucky not to see a lot of destruction based causes of anemia. The big one to worry about is an autoimmune disorder such as IMHA (Immune Mediated Hemolitic Anemia). With IMHA the body sees RBCs as invaders and attempts to wipe them out. Actual diseases of the RBC such as blood parasites will cause the body to destroy the RBC in an attempt to destroy the parasite.


This occurs where there is bleeding either outside or inside the body. Trauma, resulting in bleeding, is a common cause. Other common causes include toxins such as lead (causing bleeding into the gut), ulcers or ulcerated tumors.

 Production Failure!

The most common cause of failure to produce red blood cells is call Anemia of Chronic Disease (ACD). ACD is usually due to a long standing inflammatory or infectious condition or neoplasia. The red blood cells have a shorter life span and aren’t being produced at the normal rate.


What Can We Do?

First and foremost, identify and treat the underlying problem. Is there an infection? Heavy metal toxicity? An open wound?

Second, support the anemia. Medications such as iron or vitamin K are useful in some situations. Transfusions can even be considered. We don’t use products such as epogen in exotics medicine…but that may change with time.

It’s always important to follow up and make sure that the anemia is responding to what is being done.

Learning More and Giving Back

Looking Back…

I wrote this post a few weeks ago but I wasn’t able to find the time to finish and get it online.  It’s still relevant, especially as I am planning on going to another conference in just a few weeks.  This time I’ll be learning instead of teaching.Calendar

From October 1st:
Supporting the Veterinary Community

I’m a little nervous because this weekend I’m going to speak to a whole bunch of undergraduate students – it’s a pre-health conference at UC Davis. I haven’t ever done this type of talk before.  UC Davis is hosting a very large group of speakers to talk about the various health careers.  Check out the exotics speakers they have at their blog:

But I’m going there because I feel it’s important to give back.LEcture Hall

Giving back, in this instance, is trying to help undergraduates make the right decision about their future.  I hope that I can share what it is really like to be a veterinarian who works with these fun and difficult creatures…the exotics. More commonly I, and my associate, like to provide support by hosting veterinary students.  It’s really important to provide real world experience and to give them a chance to get a good idea of what private practice is all about.  Providing personal mentorship, even for just a few weeks, is an invaluable opportunity for these proto-vets.

It’s also very important to support our support staff – veterinary technicians.  Many students have had rotations at our hospital that have hopefully taught them skills not available in school.

Other ways that vets help each other out is by lecturing at conferences and small meetings or by teaching classes to tech students or vet students.  I found it both fun and nerve wracking to get up in front of peers and colleagues every time I have done it.  I am amazed at veterinarians in private practice who are able to do research or publish papers – how do they find the time!

Learning More

The flip side is being the individual on the receiving end.  I am immensely grateful to my professors and private clinicians who took me under their wings.  They gave me insight into things that aren’t taught in school such as how to talk to clients or discussing difficult cases.

Of course we go to conferences.  Besides the fact that continuing education is a requirement, conferences are how we all try to stay on top of changing information.  New treatments, new tests and sometimes results that tell us “whoops, that doesn’t work”.  In the exotics field we have to work to stay on top of what’s out there.  Networking with colleagues is a great way to talk with veterinarians who think differently.

I’m looking forward to an upcoming conference for specialists – the ABVP (or American Board of Veterinary Practitioners).  Of course I’ll be spending most of my time in talks about birds, rabbits, rodents and reptiles but outside of those talks I’ll be rubbing elbows with all sorts of specialists.  The ABVP covers species specialists including cats, dogs, horses, pigs, cows…they have 11 different categories.Meeting

I don’t really know how much I’ll learn by talking to a dairy specialist at lunch – who knows?  It is always worthwhile to spend time with the veterinarians who have worked hard to gain as much expertise as they can in their field. Here’s an older post on what all those veterinary degrees mean.

I can’t wait to bring some nugget back to Bay Area Bird Hospital and use it!