When you’re feeling lost or turned around, a familiar signpost can help you find your bearings. The same can be said about reading your pet’s blood work. Without any previous knowledge, your pet’s test results are nothing more than acronyms and numbers on a page—but with some basic information, you can recognize specific values and categories, and you can more easily understand your Emerald Animal Hospital veterinarian’s recommendations.
Indications for pet blood work
Although you can most likely appreciate the need for blood work when your pet is sick or hospitalized, you may be unaware of the numerous other circumstances when diagnostic testing can positively impact your pet’s health. At Emerald Animal Hospital, we routinely recommend blood work for various life events, including:
- Annual wellness appointments
- Pre-surgical assessment (i.e., before surgery or a dental procedure)
- Before starting treatment (e.g., chemotherapy)
- Before or during long-term medication
Follow the signs—navigating your pet’s test results
Before setting out on our blood work road map, we want you to know the difference between understanding your pet’s blood work results (i.e., your job) and interpreting your pet’s blood work results (i.e., your veterinarian’s job). While we will walk you through some individual values so you can recognize them on the page, single measurements are evaluated in relationship to one another—a skill that requires extensive veterinary knowledge and experience. In short, you don’t have to be an expert—your pet’s veterinarian will always review your pet’s results and discuss their interpretation, and you need only to follow along. Here are the signposts to look for along the way.
Your pet’s blood cell values
The complete blood chemistry (CBC) is a standard blood test that measures the blood’s cellular portion. The CBC is packed with vital information about your pet’s health, and you need to recognize the important values, including:
- Red blood cells (RBCs) — The shape, size, and number of your pet’s RBCs determines how well they can transport oxygen throughout the body. Various situations can decrease RBC numbers and cause anemia, including cell destruction, bone marrow production problems, and parasitic infections. Other RBC-related values include:
- Mean cell volume (MCV)
- Mean cell hemoglobin (MCH) and concentration (MCHC)
- Red cell distribution width (RDW)
- White blood cells (WBCs) — WBCs are part of your pet’s immune system. Their numbers may be elevated during infection or inflammation, and decreased (i.e., leukopenia) because of certain cancers, autoimmune disorders, and acute or chronic infections. The five WBC types include:
- Neutrophils (NEU)
- Lymphocytes (LYM)
- Eosinophils (EOS)
- Monocytes (MONO)
- Basophils (BASO)
- Platelets (PLTs) — PLTs are small fibrous particles that clump together to form a blood clot, and they control hemorrhaging during an injury or emergency, and help repair everyday damage to vessel walls. Low PLTs can indicate recent or hidden bleeding or a bone marrow anomaly.
Your pet’s organ function
The general chemistry profile is a multi-system panel that assesses your pet’s organ function, electrolytes, and other key values, such as blood glucose, and hormones. The general chemistry may look intimidating, but knowing where to look can give you the information you need about a specific organ or system, including:
- The liver — Your pet’s liver is a large, mostly regenerative organ that detoxifies the blood, metabolizes key nutrients, stores glycogen, and produces major blood proteins. Liver function is reflected in the following enzymes, proteins, and liver byproducts:
- Alanine aminotransferase (ALT)
- Alkaline phosphatase (ALP)
- Albumin (ALB)
- Gamma glutamyl transferase (GGT)
- Bilirubin and total bilirubin (BIL and TBIL)
- The kidneys — Like the liver, the kidneys filter the blood and remove toxins, waste, and byproducts to maintain a precise internal balance (i.e., homeostasis). The kidneys are also responsible for producing erythropoietin, an essential hormone for RBC production. Kidney function may be altered by toxins, inflammation or infection, medication use, trauma, or natural age-related deterioration. Key kidney values include:
- Blood urea nitrogen (BUN)
- Creatinine (CREA)
- Phosphorous (PHOS)
- The pancreas — The pancreas is a small, underappreciated organ that tends to go unnoticed until it becomes inflamed or underperforms. The pancreas produces powerful digestive enzymes and insulin, which regulates the body’s blood sugar levels. Your pet’s pancreatic function is illustrated by several values, including:
- Amylase (AMYL)
- Lipase (LIPA)
- Glucose (GLU)
- Electrolytes — Electrolytes are essential minerals that maintain the body’s pH and aid in various processes, including muscle contraction and nervous system function. Electrolytes are rapidly depleted when a pet is dehydrated, which can arise from illness or strenuous activity. Your pet’s electrolytes include:
- Sodium (Na+)
- Potassium (K+)
- Chloride (Cl-)
- Other important signposts — Some general chemistry values influence multiple organs and body functions. These include:
- Blood glucose (Glu) — Elevated blood glucose can indicate insulin-production problems, diabetes, infections, and pancreatitis.
- Thyroid hormone (T4) — Thyroid hormones are essential for metabolism and regulation of various processes and systems, including body temperature, cardiac output, nervous system function, growth, development, and reproduction.
- Cortisol — Informally referred to as the stress hormone, cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands. Excessive cortisol production can be caused by Cushing’s disease or an adrenal tumor, while insufficient levels cause Addison’s disease.
When you know how to navigate your pet’s blood work results, you know the important questions to ask, and you will better understand your veterinarian’s recommendations, and be able to make informed decisions about their care. The next time you feel a bit lost about your pet’s test results, simply look for the signposts—or contact Emerald Animal Hospital for directions.