Lab values–what do they mean?

Authored by: Becky Lundgren, DVM

Because normal laboratory values depend on the diagnostic method used, the normal variation in species/breed/age test results, etc., this article will not provide a numerical listing of values here. For example, a normal CBC for a pediatric kitten varies from that of a geriatric dog, and a healthy Greyhound’s values may differ from that of a healthy German Shepherd Dog. In addition, numbers have to be interpreted as a whole; individual abnormalities do not provide a meaningful look at overall health. (And laboratory errors do exist, so focusing on one oddity may lead to owner stress).

Because lab results can be affected by the medications your pet is taking and by the timing of the test in relation to food ingestion, always ask if your pet should eat or take his normal medication before running the test. (Yes, it’s just like when you have to have blood work done; your physician requires some tests to be done in a fasting state, and some not).

The normal range of values from a given test at a given laboratory will usually be listed on the results form, so that you can see immediately what is not in a normal range; often, results considered to be outside of the norm will be in bold text. Your veterinarian will point out to you which values are of concern and why. Because of the complexity and interrelationship of these values, allow your veterinarian to interpret them for you. Guessing a worst case scenario will just cause you preventable stress. Sometimes the tests will need to be repeated.

Complete Blood Count (CBC)

A CBC measures the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets. Red blood cells carry oxygen. The CBC also measures hemoglobin, which is the part of the red blood cell that carries the oxygen. Most white blood cells fight infection; if an animal has a high white cell count, the pet may have an infection. The platelet count is important because platelets help make blood clot properly.

Albumin

Albumin is protein created in the liver. Abnormally low ranges are seen with diseased livers, gastrointestinal disease, etc. The only time albumin is increased is when the animal is dehydrated. Albumin helps keep the liquid part (plasma) of the blood from migrating out of the blood vessels and into the surrounding tissues, which would cause edema and other problems.

Alkaline Phosphatase

Alkaline phosphatase forms in body tissue. Increased levels in dogs typically indicate liver or bone disease, or that the dog is taking prednisone. Liver and bone disease are the most common causes for increased values in cats.

ALT

ALT is an enzyme produced in the liver, and values found in the bloodstream increase with a diseased or damaged liver.

Amylase and Lipase

Amylase is an enzyme that is produced by the pancreas and the intestinal tract. It helps break down sugar. Lipase is an enzyme that helps break down fats. Pancreatitis or cancer of the liver can raise the value of both of these enzymes.

Bile Acids

Bile acids help break down fat. Because these acids are produced in the liver, a bile acid test evaluates both the liver itself and the blood flow to it. Typically, bile acid tests are run pre-prandially (before eating), and post-prandially (two hours after eating).

Bilirubin

In the liver, bilirubin is created from old red blood cells. It leaves the body in urine and stool. Values can be elevated in pets with liver or gallbladder disease, or in those animals whose red blood cells are being destroyed faster than normal. Pets with elevated bilirubin can appear jaundiced (abnormal yellow skin color).

Blood Urea Nitrogen (BUN)

BUN is a waste product. A low BUN can indicate liver disease, and an increased BUN can indicate severe kidney disease or dehydration.

Calcium
   
Typically, high blood calcium is associated with cancer, but there are other causes, such as kidney failure, bone disease, or poisoning from rodent bait. Low blood calcium can occur just before giving birth or even during nursing (eclampsia), problems with the parathyroid gland, or poisoning from antifreeze.

Cholesterol
  
As it is in people, cholesterol is a fat. Unlike in people, it doesn’t contribute to heart disease in dogs and cats. Increased cholesterol is less common in cats than in dogs. Several diseases (diabetes, hypothyroidism, Cushing’s, or kidney disease) can elevate cholesterol levels.

Creatinine

Creatinine is produced in the muscles and leaves the body in the urine. Elevated values indicate kidney disease or dehydration.

Creatinine Kinase (CK)

Damaged muscles produce creatinine kinase, which goes into the bloodstream. High values indicate problems with muscle, possibly including the heart.

Glucose

Diabetes is a typical cause of elevated glucose, which is blood sugar. Dogs with Cushing’s disease may also have elevated levels. If the glucose has been high for a while, it can be found both in the blood and urine. Low glucose levels may indicate a body-wide bacterial infection (sepsis) or pancreatic cancer; seizures are sometimes seen with low glucose.

Phosphorus

Phosphorus may be high in pets that have chronic, serious kidney disease.

Potassium

Acute kidney failure can increase levels of potassium in the bloodstream.

Sodium

Low sodium levels are commonly seen in Addison’s disease. Dehydration can cause slightly elevated levels of sodium.

Total Protein

Total protein is a value that includes albumin plus larger proteins (globulins). Total protein can be increased from dehydration or activity of the immune system; like albumin, values can decrease due to liver disease.

Urinalysis

While we sometimes think of it just for urinary tract infections, urine tests can provide diagnostic information about a number of diseases. How urine is collected for this test may depend on what disease is suspected. Urine can be caught in a cup during urination or by placing a needle directly into the bladder (cystocentesis, which isn’t as bad as it sounds), or even with a catheter.

Remember, sometimes lab results are faulty. If you find several elevated or decreased values, but your pet acts as though illness is not an issue, there could be problems with the tests and they may need to be repeated – after all, who are you most likely to believe, a dog who is running around normally and thinks he’s healthy or scary lab numbers? If your pet acts normal but the values are odd, it’s usually better to repeats the tests and eliminate all doubt about the results than to medicate a healthy animal.