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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Red Blood Cells of Horses

By Peter H. Holmes, BVMS, PhD, Dr HC, FRCVS, FRSE, OBE, University of Glasgow ; Susan M. Cotter, DVM, DACVIM (Small Animal, Oncology)

The main function of red blood cells (also called erythrocytes) is to carry oxygen to the tissues, where it is required for cellular metabolism. Oxygen molecules attach themselves to carrier molecules, called hemoglobin, which are the iron-containing proteins in red blood cells that give the cells their red color. Oxygen is carried from the lungs and delivered to all body tissues by the hemoglobin within red blood cells. Oxygen is used by cells to produce energy that the body needs. Carbon dioxide is left behind as a waste product during this process. The red blood cells then carry that carbon dioxide away from the tissues and back to the lungs, where it is exhaled. When the number of red blood cells is too low, this is called anemia. Having too few red blood cells means the blood carries less oxygen. The result is that fatigue and weakness develop. When the number of red blood cells is too high, this is called polycythemia. The result is that blood can become too thick, and impair the ability of the heart to deliver oxygen throughout the body. An animal’s metabolism is geared to protect both the red blood cells and the hemoglobin from damage. Interference with the formation or release of hemoglobin, or with production or survival of red blood cells, causes disease.

The total number of red cells remains constant over time in healthy animals. Mature red blood cells have a limited life span; their production and destruction must be carefully balanced, or disease develops.

Production of red blood cells begins with stem cells in the bone marrow and ends with the release of mature red blood cells into the body’s circulation. Within the bone marrow, all blood cells begin from a single type of cell called a stem cell. The stem cell produces an immature form of a red blood cell, a white blood cell, or a platelet-producing cell. That immature cell then divides again, develops further, and ultimately becomes a mature red blood cell, white blood cell, or platelet.

The rate of blood cell production is determined by the body’s needs. Erythropoietin, a hormone produced by the kidneys, stimulates development of red blood cells in the bone marrow. Erythropoietin increases if the body lacks oxygen (a condition called hypoxia). In most species, the kidney is both the sensor organ that determines how much oxygen the body’s tissues are receiving and the major site of erythropoietin production; so chronic kidney failure leads to anemia. Erythropoietin plays a major role in determining whether to increase the number of stem cells entering red blood cell production, to shorten maturation time of the red blood cells, or to cause early release of red blood cells. Other factors that affect red blood cell production are the supply of nutrients (such as iron and vitamins) and cell-cell interactions between compounds that aid in their production.

Anemia may be caused by blood loss, the destruction of red blood cells (hemolysis), or decreased production. In severe blood loss anemia, red blood cells are lost, but death usually results from the loss of total blood volume, rather than from the lack of oxygen caused by loss of red blood cells. Red blood cells may be destroyed by toxins such as red maple leaves, infections such as equine infectious anemia, and drugs such as phenothiazine tranquilizers. Hemolytic disease of newborn foals is caused by maternal antibodies against foals’ red blood cells (See also Anemia in Horses).

Decreased red blood cell production may be caused by primary bone marrow diseases (such as aplastic anemia or hematopoietic malignancy), kidney failure, or drugs such as phenylbutazone. Longterm debilitating diseases may also be associated with mild anemia. It is important to remember that anemia is a clinical finding, not a specific diagnosis. The prognosis and treatment depend on the underlying cause.