Everything You Need to Know About Pet Blood Work From a Veterinarian

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed on June 12, 2024.

If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. See additional information.

pet Blood Work From a Veterinarian
A complete pet blood work tells veterinarians about a pet’s red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Photo: Adina Voicu

Introduction: Why Veterinarians Recommend Pet Blood Work

“Blood work, shmud work! Why is my vet always asking me to do blood tests?”

I hear this complaint — or a reluctance to pay for blood tests — frequently. Veterinarians often defend themselves about recommending blood work.

  • “Why do you have to do blood work?” asks a client with an 8-year-old Cocker Spaniel who needs dental work.
  • “What will it tell you?” complains the human of a 4-year-old cat who has not been eating for several days.
  • “Just take off the lump without the blood work,” says the price-shopping person with a young dog with a skin tumor.

Basic pet blood work from a veterinarian — a complete blood count (CBC) and a chemistry profile — are completely noninvasive tests that tell us a great deal about the general health of your pet, young or old, sick or healthy.

Vets are so happy we can do highly reliable blood work in a matter of minutes rather than days and at a reasonable cost. If people really understood how much a CBC and a chemistry can tell us, I think they’d show less reluctance.

Understanding Pet Blood Work From a Veterinarian

In a complete blood count (CBC), a small amount of your pet’s blood is taken from a vein and placed in a lavender-top tube. The blood draw takes about 10 seconds.

The CBC informs us about red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.

Red Blood Cells

  • If the red cell count (hematocrit or PCV) is low, your pet is anemic. Then your vet has to find out why your pet is anemic.
  • If the red cell count is high, your pet is most likely dehydrated. Rarely, a high red blood cell count suggests a disease called polycythemia.
  • Are the red blood cells healthy? A simple CBC tells us much about your pet’s actual red blood cells, which is like a window into your pet’s bone marrow, spleen, and kidneys.

White Blood Cells

  • There are a number of different white blood cells in your pet’s peripheral blood.
  • The kind of white cells and the relative numbers of these cells help your vet decide whether your pet might be suffering from an infection, bacterial or viral, inflammation, or cancer.
  • Although the white cell count does not give us specifics about where an infection might be, where the inflammation is coming from, or if your pet actually has cancer, it can lead us in a specific diagnostic direction.

Platelets

  • Platelets are proteins that help pets make a blood clot.
  • A low platelet count is a worry and should be addressed, particularly before any surgery.
Blood Work From a Veterinarian
The vet takes your pet’s health seriously — hence the necessity of pet blood work from a veterinarian. Photo: hzv_westfalen_de

The Chemistry Profile (or Panel)

Once we’ve learned how your pet’s blood cells are doing with a CBC, we turn to your pet’s serum, the fluid in your pet’s blood. This blood is taken in that same 10-second blood draw as the CBC and placed in a second red-top tube. We don’t need much of your pet’s blood to do a battery of tests.

Many enzymes and elements are found in the serum that tell us tons about your pet’s organs, metabolic state, and electrolyte status.

Liver, Kidneys, Gallbladder

While the basic chemistry panel can’t give us specific answers as to what liver disease, gallbladder condition or kidney disease your pet might be suffering from, increases in specific enzymes are red flags and tell us we need to look deeper or monitor certain organs.

The chemistry allows us, for example, to pick up early (or advanced) kidney disease, injury to the liver or possible gallbladder problems.

Electrolytes

Alterations in electrolytes like sodium, potassium and chloride are serious. They can:

  • Signal endocrine diseases, like Addison’s
  • Help us measure dehydration
  • Aid in what kind of IV fluid supplementation your animal needs if there has been vomiting, diarrhea, kidney disease or other illness
  • Help us complete a medical picture in a pet with diabetes, GI, pancreatic, kidney or endocrine disease

Blood Glucose

An elevated blood glucose (blood sugar) suggests diabetes. A low blood sugar indicates other syndromes such as insulinoma, starvation or hypoglycemia of young puppies.

Misconceptions About Blood Work

Heartworm Test

The annual heartworm test, or 4dX test, for dogs does not include other blood work. The test determines if there is evidence of heartworm or other tick-borne diseases.

Your vet must specify that they’d like to do a CBC/chem or “blood panel” or “comprehensive blood work” to look for things beyond the heartworm test.

Limitations of Pet Blood Work

  • “Will the pet blood work tell us if my pet has cancer?” is an all-too-frequent question.
  • No, the CBC/chemistry panel does not diagnose cancer. However, if the pet is anemic, shows atypical cells in the CBC, has high liver enzymes, etc., the panel can point us in a certain diagnostic direction or help us flush out the overall picture.
  • Blood Work Has a

Pet Blood Work Has a Shelf Life

Blood work must be repeated if your pet’s health status is changing or if we are staging or tracking a chronic disease.

  • If a pet has recently lost a lot of weight or has begun to drink a lot of water, I will definitely recommend blood work.
  • The client might say, “But they had blood work done 6 months ago and it was fine.”
  • But clearly the pet’s health status has changed if they have lost significant weight, or if thirst or appetite have changed dramatically. The blood work should be repeated.
  • If we have diagnosed a chronic problem, like kidney, liver or diabetes, then serial blood work is one of the best ways to monitor whether the disease has improved or worsened.

Basic Pet Blood Work Costs

  • Most CBC/chemistry panel combinations run somewhere between $100–$200. They may be more expensive in certain regions of the country or in emergency situations.
  • There are many, many other blood tests and “comprehensive panels” that include other tests. Obviously, these tests carry an additional price tag.
  • A retroviral panel, for example, will include Felv/FIV/FIP for a sick kitty. Thyroid testing is very common in both dogs and cats. There should be no confusion about these costs if your vet is communicating clearly.

In the video below, veterinary nurse Victoria Birch shares more information on getting blood work from a veterinarian:

YouTube player

When Basic Blood Work Should Be Done

These simple tests provide valuable information with minimal trauma to your pet and at a reasonable cost. They are recommended frequently:

  • As part of a wellness exam, particularly as your pet ages
  • Before most anesthetic procedures
  • When your pet is ill and we are searching for a diagnosis
  • To monitor existing conditions like kidney disease, liver disease, or diabetes
  • Before starting a new medication
  • If your pet is taking long-term medications such as NSAIDs, steroids, or chemotherapy drugs

Because pets have shorter life spans, the basic CBC/chemistry is often part of an annual physical. Insurance plans usually cover these tests.

Veterinarians like to give good news, and often, pet blood work results are normal. If asked why the test was necessary, my response is: “If your doctor called to say your blood work was normal, wouldn’t you feel relieved?”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

When to remove bandage after a pet had blood work done?

The bandage can typically be removed after a few hours once the bleeding has stopped.

How long does pet blood work take?

Pet blood work usually takes a few minutes for the sample collection and about 15-30 minutes for the results, depending on the tests performed.



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