Top 10 Blood Tests

Learn what blood tests are most mean­ing­ful to your vet­eri­nar­ian—and what ba­sic lab work will (or won’t) tell you about your horse’s health.

Horse & Rider - - Contents - By Barb Crabbe, DVM

Learn what ba­sic lab work can tell you and your vet­eri­nar­ian about your horse’s health.

Your horse is un­der the weather, and your vet doesn’t know what’s wrong. “We should prob­a­bly run some ba­sic lab work,” he ex­plains. “Maybe that’ll help us fig­ure out what to do.” Just about ev­ery horse owner has given the green light for “ba­sic lab work” that in­cludes a com­plete blood count and chem­istry panel. I’ll un­ravel some of the mys­ter­ies about ba­sic blood work. I’ll start by ex­plain­ing the most com­mon rea­sons I sug­gest blood work and what fac­tors I con­sider when in­ter­pret­ing the re­sults. Then I’ll tell you about the 10 tests I al­ways look at first—in­clud­ing what they might mean and how they re­late to other tests. You’ll learn why blood work is an im­por­tant tool in your vet’s tool box, and how to make the most of the re­sults.

Blood-Test Ba­sics

Your horse’s blood is his ba­sic in­ter­nal trans­port sys­tem. It car­ries oxy­gen from his lungs to his other or­gans, de­liv­ers nu­tri­ents from his in­testines, trans­mits pro­teins or other spe­cial­ized cells to places where they’re needed, and car­ries waste ma­te­ri­als away for elim­i­na­tion. When your horse is healthy, the sub­stances in the blood typ­i­cally stay within a cer­tain range. When some­thing’s wrong, one type of cell or substance may go out of whack. Know­ing this pro­vides in­for­ma­tion to help iden­tify the prob­lem.

Hun­dreds of tests can be per­formed on a sam­ple of blood, rang­ing from a sim­ple count of red blood cells to a test for hor­mone lev­els that might in­di­cate a spe­cific dis­ease. I’ll limit my fo­cus to the ba­sics, made up of a com­plete blood count (or CBC) and chem­istry panel.

A CBC pro­vides in­for­ma­tion about the num­ber and char­ac­ter­is­tics of red and white blood cells cir­cu­lat­ing in your horse’s sys­tem, as well as a break­down of the dif­fer­ent types of white blood cells. The chem­istry panel con­sists of a num­ber of tests that help eval­u­ate the health and func­tion of in­ter­nal or­gans, as well as mea­sure­ment of pro­teins that are in­volved with inf lam­ma­tion. Your vet will most likely sug­gest ba­sic blood work for one of the fol­low­ing five rea­sons.

Your horse is los­ing weight. The most com­mon rea­sons for weight loss in­clude par­a­sites, den­tal prob­lems, and poor nu­tri­tion. If your vet de­ter­mines that these ba­sic is­sues aren’t the cause and he finds noth­ing un­usual on a phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion, he’ll sug­gest blood work that might iden­tify more se­ri­ous causes for your horse’s weight loss, such as liver or kid­ney dis­ease.

Your horse has a fever. A fever is usu­ally caused by one of three things: an in­flam­ma­tory prob­lem, a vi­ral in­fec­tion, or a bac­te­rial in­fec­tion. Blood work can help your vet de­ter­mine the like­li­hood of bac­te­rial in­volve­ment, and help him de­cide whether to treat with an­tibi­otics. It can also help your vet eval­u­ate the sever­ity of your horse’s prob­lem.

Your horse is off his feed with no other signs. If your horse stops eat­ing yet shows no other symp­toms, and your vet can’t find any­thing amiss on a phys­i­cal exam, blood work might help pro­vide an an­swer—whether it’s a low-grade in­fec­tion, source of in­flam­ma­tion, or or­gan dys­func­tion.

Your horse just doesn’t seem right. Your horse might be eat­ing and pass­ing manure nor­mally, but some­thing just “seems off.” Blood work can give you peace of mind that

noth­ing is wrong—or it might give you a clue about a prob­lem brew­ing.

Rou­tine screen­ing. Rou­tine blood work es­tab­lishes a base­line for com­par­i­son if your horse later be­comes ill. This is es­pe­cially use­ful for older horses that de­velop chronic prob­lems that sneak up over time. Rou­tine screen­ing is also valu­able for per­for­mance horses that ex­pe­ri­ence high lev­els of stress and of­ten are ad­min­is­tered med­i­ca­tions such as non-steroidal anti-in­flam­ma­to­ries.

Al­though ba­sic blood work can give you and your vet a lot of in­for­ma­tion about your horse’s health sta­tus, a sin­gle lab value or set of tests doesn’t al­ways tell the whole story. To make the most of blood re­sults, make sure your vet has an ac­cu­rate his­tory about your horse’s con­di­tion and is able to do a thor­ough phys­i­cal exam. TEST #1: RED BLOOD  CELL COUNT RBC What it is: The RBC tells you the to­tal num­ber of red blood cells cir­cu­lat­ing in your horse’s blood­stream. What it tells you: A low RBC might in­di­cate ane­mia, while a high RBC is most com­monly seen with de­hy­dra­tion. Ane­mia is most likely in horses se­condary to some other chronic dis­ease. Your vet might con­sider fluid ther­apy if he no­tices a very high RBC. Re­lated tests: The RBC is al­ways ac­com­pa­nied by a cou­ple of other tests in­clud­ing the hema­t­ocrit (also called “packed-cell vol­ume” or PCV), which in­di­cates the per­cent­age of red blood cells com­pared with the to­tal vol­ume of blood, and the he­mo­glo­bin, which mea­sures of the amount of the pro­tein that car­ries oxy­gen within the blood. liver fail­ure), so he’ll look closely at lab val­ues re­lated to or­gan func­tion.

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