A blood donation—whether for people or pets—is truly the gift of life.
Dogs and cats require transfusions for the same reasons we do: they're sick, injured or require major surgery for some reason. As veterinary medicine has become more sophisticated, the need for blood products has greatly increased.
"The more we realize that some of the problems we thought were not treatable in the past can be treated with a transfusion, the more that owners want to go ahead and pursue it," said Dr. Beth Davidow, medical director at ACCES, the largest animal hospital in the Seattle area.
In order to perform these sophisticated procedures, blood needs to be readily available—and that requires a blood bank. With the help of volunteer dog and cat owners, ACCES now supplies blood products—plasma and red blood cells—to 47 other veterinary hospitals in Washington state.
"Our donor families are amazing. They're willing to take time out of their busy lives to come into our hospital and allow their pet to do something that will save the life of another pet," Davidow said.
Bailey Crawford is alive today thanks to surgery that required blood products. Bailey, a 4-year-old Shiba Inu, was hit by a car in January. Her injuries were so serious that the vet recommended she be euthanized. But the doctors at ACCES were able to repair her perforated bowel and treat her infection. Bailey received multiple transfusions, before, during and after surgery.
"She was on her deathbed and without the blood bank they couldn't have saved her," said Patrick Crawford, Bailey's owner. "All the money in the world wouldn't have mattered if they didn't have the blood she needed."
Some of that blood was donated by Detta Bauer, an 8-year-old Doberman Pinscher, who's been a regular blood donor for about two years now.
"It's wonderful to know that her blood saved another dog," said Gretchen Bauer, Detta's owner. "It's very exciting and I feel lucky to have been able to help out."
Bauer's previous Doberman had a blood disorder and needed transfusions. So, when she got Detta, Gretchen wanted to give back.
"When we pull up to the blood bank, Detta knows exactly where she is and gets very excited," Bauer told me. "They take her weight and she runs right to the exam room. She gets treats the whole time and they fuss over her. And at the end, she gets a toy. So for her, it's great."
Supply cannot keep up with demand
Pet blood is often in short supply, even though there are several national blood banks that ship blood across the country.
"Most people just don't know about this," said Rebecca Nusbaum, operations director at HemoSolutions, one of the country's largest pet blood banks located in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "We always need more donors and that's the case for every pet blood bank in the U.S."
HemoSolutions has about 300 dog and 100 cat donors. Pet owners must commit to six donations a year.
The process takes about 10 to 15 minutes. During that time, the dogs get "lots of belly rubs and baby talk," Nusbaum said. The dogs are not sedated. Cats, for obvious reasons, must be anesthetized.
After six donations, HemoSolutions sends money to the donor family's veterinarian—anywhere from $75 to $150 depending on the blood type—to pay for some of the animal's routine medical care.
It's like the Red Cross for pets
Patricia Kaufman's Beagle-mix Jake died 25 years ago from blood loss after surgery. Back then, few vets did transfusions, partly because there was no supply of blood to call on.
Today, Kaufman is director of Animal Blood Resources International (ABRI), headquartered in Dixon, California. She calls it the nation's oldest and largest commercial pet blood bank.
"We produce a very large volume of blood," she said. "We're like the Red Cross."
ABRI handles about a thousand canine and 400 feline donations a month. That blood is shipped across North America as well as to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Central and South America. Kaufman told me they sold about $5 million worth of blood products last year.
While most pet blood banks rely on volunteer donors, ABRI has its own kennel of dogs and cats in Michigan. Kaufman said the majority of those animals are rescues from local shelters that could not be adopted and were most likely going to be euthanized. ABRI's kennel is licensed and inspected by the USDA, even though this is not required, she said.
The company also works with breeders and rescue kennels in California who have a number of animals.
"We pay them very well to take care of these dogs and cats and provide us with the blood," Kaufman said. "They're all trained by us and their kennels and catteries have to meet the standards of the federal Animal Welfare Act."
Maybe you'd like your dog or cat to become a donor
There's probably a pet blood bank near you, even if it's a small one run by a local veterinarian. Donors must be in good health and current on their vaccinations and parasite control.
"We need a very healthy, disease-free donor to provide disease-free blood," said Dr. Jane Wardrop, who runs the pet blood bank at Washington State University.
These animals also need to be large: typically 50 pounds or more for dogs, 10 pounds or more for cats. There are also age requirements, typically 1 to about 6 years old. And since dogs are not sedated, they have to be willing to go along with the program.
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"Our goal is to have animals who drag you into the exam room because they know what's going to happen," Wardrop explained. "They're going to lie on a table, have a little needle poke and get lots of treats afterwards. If we get animals that don't appear to enjoy the process, we don't use them."
Did you know?
Just like people, dogs and cats have different blood types. According to the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, dogs have at least six blood types. And just like people, some dogs are considered to be "universal" donors, whose blood can be given to any other dog.
Cat blood is much simpler: type A or type B, rarely type AB.
Whole blood is separated into red cells and plasma. Packed red cells can be refrigerated for five weeks. Plasma can be kept frozen for a year. One dog donation can save up to four different dogs. One cat donation can save up to two cats.
Even with the increased supply, the right type of blood is often difficult to find in an emergency. Cat blood is always critically short.
"This blood is so badly needed and it can save lives," Wardrop said.