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November 20, 2012

Life-Savers: Dogs Who Donate Blood

Your dog can easily save the lives of countless other dogs

  • Loving arms encircle this blood donor during the blood draw, while another veterinary technician keeps the treats coming. Blue Ridge Veterinary Blood Bank

By Julie Hauserman

With a 45-minute visit to the veterinarian every 5 to 7 weeks, your dog can be a hero. It's that simple.

Like many people, Inga Fricke, director of sheltering and pet care issues for The HSUS, regularly donates blood to help others who need transfusions because of injuries or during surgery.

So when she heard about the constant need for canine blood to help sick and injured dogs, Fricke found out if her rescued greyhound, Ripley, might be able to help.

Just like people, when pets need surgery, they often need transfusions of blood or they might die.

A matter of life and death

"I learned that just like people, when pets need surgery due to illness or injury, they often need transfusions of blood. Without donors there would be no blood available, and those pets might die," said Fricke.

"I remembered reading about a local kennel fire a few years back. More than a dozen dogs were nearly killed, and each of those dogs required multiple units of blood. Without it they would have died." 

Fricke isn't alone in making a connection: "I think that people are much more understanding these days of the fact that humans and animals have the same needs, medically speaking," said Jean Dodds, D.V.M., who founded and operates Hemopet, an animal blood bank in Southern California.

During the procedure, "the technicians give Ripley as much attention, hugs and petting as she can stand."

Required: a good match

Fricke brought Ripley to her local veterinarian, who operates a regional blood bank—the Blue Ridge Veterinary Blood Bank in Virginia.

Veterinarians do rigorous testing to make sure the donor candidate has no diseases that could be passed on. It’s also important for a dog to have a calm temperament.

Ripley fit the bill, so Fricke signed her up for a regular donation schedule—every five to seven weeks.

Talk to your veterinarian to see if your dog can donate blood, either at the vet's office or a blood bank.

The process: hugs and treats

During the 45-minute process, Fricke says, "the technicians give Ripley as much attention, hugs and petting as she can stand. They gently lift her onto a table, where one technician wraps her body in a secure bear hug while the other shaves a small spot on her neck and draws the blood."  

Worried that donating blood is hard on Ripley? Don't.

"The fact that she gets to lick peanut butter and gets treats during the entire procedure seems to more than make up for any concerns or discomfort," Fricke continued. "In fact, I'd venture to guess you've never met a dog happier to go to the 'V-E-T'!"

Though Ripley doesn't need them, some dogs get fluids administered afterward to prevent them from being weak or having a drop in blood pressure.

"Afterwards, aside from a small hairless spot, you would never know that she had just donated blood, and there are no adverse effects," Fricke said.

Why regular donors are needed

It's important to have a consistent set of donors, because canine blood only has a shelf-life of about 30 to 35 days, and the supply needs to be replenished so it is on hand when animals need it. Some veterinary clinics don't need blood very often, so they dont keep it on hand. That's when the regional and national blood banks have to fill the gap.

So the Blue Ridge Veterinary Blood Bank travels to veterinary clinics, pet stores, pet groomers, and other places where people have signed up their pets to be regular donors.

Canine blood only has a shelf-life of about 30 to 35 days, so the supply must be constantly replenished.

Humane treatment is essential

Dr. Dodds has been a hematologist for 50 years. The important thing, she says, is to make sure that all blood is properly tested. But the animals who give blood must also be treated humanely as the special, sentient beings they are—given respect, love, and attention. 

Laws and practices vary

If you're interested in having your dog become a blood donor, talk to your veterinarian. Also, find out what your state's law is: While some states allow animals to be brought to blood banks to donate, it's not always so simple. California law requires that commercial blood banks house their blood-donor animals on site. The rescued greyhounds owned by Hemopet live at its facility and serve as blood donors for a set period of time. They are then adopted into forever homes.

Some veterinary clinics also operate in-house blood banks to supply their patient's needs, either through animals who live at the clinic (i.e. a "clinic cat,") or through patients like Ripley, who regularly come and go to provide donations. In all blood-banking scenarios, it is important that the animals only serve as donors for a limited period of time.

The animals who give blood must be treated humanely as the special, sentient beings they are—given respect, love, and attention.

The benefits of donating

At his Ocean State Veterinary Specialists clinic in Rhode Island, Gary Block, D.V.M., has about 100 patients who are blood donors. Pet owners who sign up their dogs as blood donors get special benefits—free blood testing, gift certificates for pet supplies—even gift certificates for local restaurants.

They also get the good feeling that comes from helping others in need.

"Most people are perfectly happy to do it," said Dr. Block, who is a member of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association board. "They know that donating for animals is a nice thing to do, just like donating blood to help other people is a nice thing to do."

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