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What You Need to Know About the CBC Test for Dogs

We take you through the ABCs of the CBC, the complete blood count test your dog will need at certain times in their life.

Audrey Pavia  |  Jan 13th 2017


Editor’s note: Have you seen the Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our December-January issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

If you’ve had your dog spayed or neutered, your veterinarian probably recommended a pre-anesthetic blood panel, which included a CBC. A CBC —short for complete blood count — provides a window into your dog’s inner health. A CBC is usually ordered in conjunction with a blood chemistry to evaluate organ function.

It’s no wonder the CBC is such an important test when determining your dog’s health. The blood that circulates in his body is such a vital part of his makeup. It works to bring nutrients and oxygen to the cells throughout his body, to fight infection, and help eliminate wastes and carbon dioxide from his circulation. It also gives great cues as to what’s going on deep inside.

Essentially, a CBC looks at the makeup of your dog’s blood cells: the number of red and white cells, their shape, and also platelets, which are important for blood clotting. The CBC also shows the hemoglobin level — the part of the cell that holds all-important oxygen.

The hematology aspect of the CBC looks at the physiology of the cells in the blood, while the blood chemistry facet evaluates electrolytes, enzymes, and other compounds in the blood.

Dog getting blood drawn by Shutterstock.

Dog getting blood drawn by Shutterstock.

The normal ranges for the various aspects measured by a CBC helps your vet determine if your dog is healthy. A number of health issues can be caught early with a routine blood test, while your vet can also diagnose a problem by looking at your dog’s CBC numbers. Depending on your dog’s age, a CBC can be particularly helpful in providing your vet with a picture of his overall health.

Blood for a CBC is usually drawn from the dog’s neck, where the large jugular vein is located. Some veterinary hospitals send the blood out to a lab, depending on the facility and the type of CBC test they are looking for, while others are able to determine blood results in-house. When blood is sent out, it can often take one to two days to get the results. In-house tests are ready to be interpreted by the vet within just a few minutes. Depending on the hospital, in-house tests not only evaluate for basic information but also for more complex conditions.

Puppies

The first time my dog, Mookie, had his blood drawn for a CBC was the day he was scheduled to be neutered. Even though Mookie was young and healthy, his vet’s goal was to make certain no problems were lurking that might complicate his surgery.

“In puppies, a CBC can identify anemia, infection, inflammation, or even a potentially weak immune system,” said Heidi Watkins, D.V.M., of VCA Airport Irvine Animal Hospital in Costa Mesa, California. “In addition to a CBC, pre-anesthetic blood panels include chemistries that check on kidney and liver function. The health of these organs is important for metabolizing many anesthetic drugs.”

The CBC of a healthy puppy will show some differences from that of an adult, according to Dr. Watkins. The pup’s CBC may show a lower white blood count and imply a weak or immature immune system.

“Puppies should receive a CBC as part of their pre-anesthetic panel,” Dr. Watkins said. “Puppies that are acting ill may also require a CBC in addition to other diagnostic tests.”

It’s the best way to determine how the hematic system and vital organs are functioning.

Adults

A CBC is in order if your adult dog needs dental care under anesthesia or isn’t feeling well. A pre-dental CBC will help your vet determine if your dog is healthy enough to go under anesthesia. If he’s sick, the CBC numbers can help show where the problem might be.

“The CBC of an adult dog should show a healthy, robust immune system,” Dr. Watkins said. “It’s good to have a baseline CBC on file to compare to future tests, since numbers within the normal range can vary from dog to dog.”

Seniors

As dogs age, their bodies start to slow down. Kidney function may decrease, immunity may be reduced, and diseases like cancer can take hold. A CBC as part of a complete lab panel can detect some of these issues early, making problems easier to treat.

“Senior dogs should have a CBC, chemistry panel, and urinalysis performed once or twice a year when they are well,” Dr. Watkins said. “As part of the panel, the CBC can show early signs of illness before symptoms show up.”

Of course, any time a senior dog is acting lethargic, not eating, or is expressing any other unusual behavior, complete blood testing, including the CBC, is in order.

“Older dogs should get a CBC any time they are acting sick,” Dr. Watkins said.

Dog owners these days are fortunate that veterinarians have the CBC at their disposal. This invaluable tool enables them to get an inside look at how your dog’s body is functioning. Your vet can let you know when your dog should get his next CBC. This valuable test may someday save his life.

CBCs can help identify:

  • different types of anemia
  • dehydration
  • autoimmune diseases
  • inflammation
  • blood cancers
  • tick-borne diseases
  • bacterial infections
  • viral infections
  • bone marrow diseases
  • some parasitic diseases