Pet Factsheets

Red blood cells are made in the bone marrow and found in the bloodstream

Anaemia is defined as a lack of healthy red blood cells (RBCs) in the blood. There are several reasons why anaemia occurs: the RBCs can be destroyed by the body (auto-immune disease), the body can stop making them or severe blood loss may occur (internal or external).

What are RBCs used for?

Red blood cells contain a protein called haemoglobin, which carries oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. They also assist in getting carbon dioxide from the tissues to the lungs, where it can be breathed out. Without adequate amounts of RBCs, oxygen levels decrease, and carbon dioxide levels increase.

Why does anaemia occur?

The cells in all our bodies, including rabbits, are constantly being produced and dying off. RBCs last, on average, 57 day in rabbits, which is lower than RBCs in dogs and cats, and they lose around 0.5% of their RBCs every day, as a normal process. The body will naturally regenerate and replace these. Problems arise when RBCs are lost or destroyed quicker than they can be replaced, which leads to anaemia.

Anaemia in rabbits can occur for the following reasons:

  • Recent blood loss, due to ecto (external) parasites, such as fleas or endo (internal) parasites, such as tapeworms.
  • Trauma (internal or external).
  • Haematuria (blood in the urine).
  • Bleeding uterine tumour.
  • Ingestion of onions, which can destroy the RBCs.
  • Eating potato plants.
  • Pododermatitis.
  • Dental problems.
  • Pyometra.
  • Lead toxicity.
  • Renal disease.

There are other reasons which may result in anaemia also, but these are the most common reasons.

What are the signs?

Anaemia can be classed as regenerative or non-regenerative.

Regenerative anaemia is when the bone marrow responds to the decreasing number of red blood cells by increasing production of new blood cells and is more commonly seen in acute conditions (such as trauma). In a non-regenerative anaemia, the bone marrow doesn’t respond to the increased need for red blood cells and is more commonly seen in chronic conditions.

Clinical signs shown by rabbits, that are anaemic, will usually be non-specific, so may be confused as other conditions, but will include:

  • Generalised weakness.
  • Lethargy.
  • Lying around more.
  • Struggling to hop and move around.
  • Eating less, slower or complete loss of appetite.
  • Fewer or no droppings being passed.
  • Pale mucous membranes.
  • Increased respiratory rate and effort.
  • Collapse.

If you notice any of the signs above, you must take your rabbit to your vet as soon as possible.

How can my vet diagnose the cause of anaemia?

Your vet will examine your rabbit, starting at the head and working their way back to the tail. A full clinical examination is important to help determine the underlying cause for anaemia.

They will want to discuss a clinical history with you and determine if they have had access to any potential toxins, including potato plants, lead paint or onions. It is important that you are honest with your vet.

After this your vet will likely suggest further tests to see if they can pinpoint the cause of the anaemia. This may include:

  • Blood tests, including a packed cell volume (PCV) to assess the percentage of RBCs in the blood.
  • Serum lead levels.
  • Ultrasound examination.
  • Radiography (x-rays).
  • Exploratory surgery: this would only be once the rabbit has been stabilised for anaesthesia and surgery.

What treatment will my vet give?

This depends on what the cause of the anaemia is.

Your vet may want to admit your rabbit for supportive treatment, including intravenous fluid therapy, assisted feeding and monitoring. Surgery may be required, if a tumour is identified as the cause of anaemia, or wounds may need suturing etc. The treatment will be aimed at treating the underlying cause, as well as the anaemia and supporting the rabbit.

A blood transfusion may also be required in extreme cases.

Will my rabbit make a full recovery?

Again, this will depend on what the underlying cause/s of the anaemia is found to be. Cases of non-regenerative anaemia are more serious and sometimes treatment can be lengthy.

Can I prevent anaemia occurring?

Neutering your female rabbit will prevent tumours occurring in the uterus as they get older, which run the risk of haemorrhaging.

Giving your rabbit a suitable diet, will help to prevent dental problems and obesity. Obesity is a major cause of pododermatitis.

Make sure your rabbit does not have access to any areas which have been painted with lead paint. Lead is no longer contained in paint, but older houses may still have walls which have lead paint on, and if the rabbit chews the wall and paint, they will ingest some of the lead.

Keep your rabbits away from onions and potato plants.

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