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Small Animal Pets Need Blood Tests, Too

It’s true! When signs of illness are vague, a blood panel gives veterinarians information about what’s happening with your rabbit, ferret or other small animal pet.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: May 6, 2015, 9:05 p.m. EDT

vet getting blood sample from rabbit
© Courtesy of Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
The large vein in a rabbit's rear leg is a good spot for a veterinarian to get a blood sample.

Most pet owners are keenly aware of when their pet is just not feeling well. Sometimes we notice a reduced appetite, abnormal droppings or urine in the litter box or cage, or a change in attitude or activity level. While these signs point to trouble, they are often considered vague signs of illness. This means that many different problems can present with similar clinical signs. In such cases the question is: How do we know what is causing our pet to be sick?

When presented with a sick animal, a veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination. During the exam, the animal is assessed for lumps and bumps, discharge from the eyes/nose, abnormal teeth, irregular heart/lung sounds and so on. In addition to a physical examination, veterinarians often recommend laboratory testing in order to get a complete picture of the health status of the animal. One such test is a blood panel.

What A Blood Panel Checks
A blood test examines things that are not obvious on a physical examination, such as kidney and liver function, calcium and other electrolyte levels, glucose (blood sugar) and so on. This test examines both the fluid portion of the blood (known as serum) as well as looking directly at blood cells.

There are three types of cells found in blood and each has specific functions. Red blood cells (RBCs) are critical for delivering oxygen to tissues. White blood cells (WBCs) are part of the immune system. There are five different types of white blood cells found within mammals, and the primary goal of each is to assist in protecting the body from invaders like bacteria and parasites. Finally, thrombocytes help establish clots should bleeding occur.

One of the most common disturbances of RBCs is anemia. This is when RBC numbers are low and it makes an animal weak, tired and poorly oxygenated. This can happen if there is blood loss, such as following an accident, ingestion of certain rodenticides or due to a bleeding gastric ulcer. Anemia can also occur if the body stops producing RBCs, such as with certain cancers, toxin exposure or chronic illness.

An examination of the status of the WBCs is also very informative. An overall increase may suggest infection or inflammation in the body. Cancers like lymphosarcoma can sometimes be diagnosed based on WBC counts and the physical appearance of the cells.

Methods Of Taking Blood
Fortunately, many techniques allow a veterinarian to take blood that are not stressful for a pet. For example, using the saphenous vein on a rabbit allows the rabbit to sit comfortably on a table while the hind leg is extended. In my experience, few rabbits object to this method. In other animals, such as ferrets, chinchillas and guinea pigs, the jugular vein or the cephalic vein of the front leg may be used. Very small pets like degus and gerbils may require anesthesia in order to safely take a blood sample.

It is important to remember that not all diseases can be diagnosed based on a physical examination alone. Laboratory testing is essential to determining what is going on inside of the body. Consult your veterinarian if you feel that your pet is unwell.

Note: This article is meant for educational purposes only and in no way represents any particular individual or case. It is not for diagnostic purposes. If your pet is sick, please take him or her to a veterinarian.

See all of Dr. Materi's blogs

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Signs Of A Sick Rabbit

Posted: May 6, 2015, 9:05 p.m. EDT


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