Polycythemia in Dogs

Polycythemia in Dogs

Health & Safety

Polycythemia is a serious blood disorder that can affect dogs by impacting the levels of red blood cells found in the bloodstream. The disorder sees a dramatic increase in red blood cells (RBCs) which can then negatively affect a dog’s entire system. There are three types of polycythemia which are classed as being relative, transient or absolute.

Relative Polycythemia Explained

When dogs develop the relative form of the condition there is a decrease in the level of plasma which is typically caused by dogs being dehydrated for whatever reason and this produces an increase in red blood cell levels.

Transient Polycythemia Explained

The transient form of the condition is caused by what is known as splenic contractions"" which then inject red blood cells into a dog's system as a response to stress, fear or aggression.

Absolute Polycythemia Explained

When dogs suffer from the absolute form of the condition, it describes the fact that an increased number of red blood cells are circulating in their systems which is typically due to an increase in the production of RBCs in bone marrow. It can be a primary or a secondary condition and when it is the former which is also referred to as polycythemia rubra vera, the condition is known to be a myeloproliferative disorder where bone marrow produces far too many red blood cells. Dogs suffering from a secondary form of the condition sees them unable to produce enough oxygen in the blood for whatever reason.

Signs to Watch Out For

Dogs with the condition typically show the following signs of there being something wrong with them. When it is the ""relative"", the symptoms are as follows:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • A decrease in thirst
  • An increased need to urinate

When dogs develop the ""absolute"" form of the condition, the symptoms typically association with the disorder are as follows:

  • Lethargy/lack of energy
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Gums turn a bluish or dark red colour
  • Nosebleeds
  • Sneezing
  • A swollen abdomen

The Causes

Research has established that dogs may develop the disorder for various reasons. Should a dog be suffering from the ""relative"" form of the condition, it could be because of the following reasons:

  • Kidney disease
  • Hyperventilation
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Not enough water intake

Should a dog be suffering from the ""transient"" form of the disorder, it could be because of the following reasons:

  • Anxiety
  • Excitement
  • Seizures
  • Being restrained

Should a dog have developed the ""primary absolute"" form of the condition, it could be for the following reason:

  • A myeloproliferative disorder which is a rare bone marrow disease
  • Should a dog have developed the ""secondary absolute"" form of the condition, it could be for the following reasons:
  • They are not producing enough oxygen in their blood streams which is a condition known as hypoxemia
  • Lung disease (long-term)
  • Heart disease
  • High altitude
  • Compromised blood supply to the kidneys
  • Inappropriate EPO secretion
  • A kidney cyst
  • Swelling of a kidney which can be due to urine backing up in an organ as a result of bladder disorder
  • An overactive adrenal gland
  • An overactive thyroid gland
  • A tumour on an adrenal gland
  • Cancer

Diagnosing the Problem

A vet would need to thoroughly examine a dog suspected of suffering from the condition and ideally need to know a dog’s medical history and how the onset of any symptoms first manifested themselves. Vets typically recommend carrying out the following tests when they suspect a dog might be suffering from the condition:

  • A chemical blood profile
  • A complete blood count
  • A urinalysis
  • An electrolyte panel
  • X-rays
  • Ultra-sound – both X-rays and ultra-sounds would help rule out any other underlying causes of a dog’s symptoms.

The vet would also want to measure the oxygen levels found in a dog’s blood and they would typically check EPO levels too.

Treatment Options

A dog suspected of suffering from the condition would usually need to be hospitalised so they can be closely monitored and treated. Dogs suffering from polycythemia often need to have excess red blood cells removed from their systems which is a procedure known as phlebotomy. A vet might also find that a dog would need oxygen therapy to replenish the levels of oxygen in their blood and they would need to be given fluid therapy intravenously.

Living with a Dog with Polycythemia

A dog would need to have regular check-ups with the vet to make sure their condition has stabilised and so they can be tested to ensure red blood levels are normal. If it is found they have increased again, the sooner a vet can treat a dog, the better the outcome.


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