Can Your Dog Give the Gift of Life?

The importance of canine blood donors
By Shea Cox DVM, March 2012

Not long ago an adorable Dachshund-mix puppy named Sunny was brought into my ER because he was having trouble breathing and was coughing up blood. A quick blood test determined that he had eaten rat poison. A blood transfusion was required to save his life. He made a full recovery.

The need for blood or plasma transfusions is a frequent occurrence in our referral hospital, and can be crucial in many situations including trauma, immune diseases, blood-loss during surgery or, as in the case of Sunny, for eating rat bait.

When a lifesaving transfusion is recommended, the natural question by worried pet parents is, “Where do you get this from?” People are generally surprised when I answer, that just like for us people, there are canine blood banks.

Canine blood banks
Veterinary blood banks are a fairly new concept, developed during the past 10 to 20 years, and there are essentially two kinds: collection centers using volunteer dogs and centers that house and care for their own group of donor dogs who live on the grounds of the blood bank.

Community-based donor programs rely on volunteers to bring in their pets for blood donation. There are several veterinary schools that participate in this kind of program, including University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. Incentives to volunteers can include free annual health exams and blood work, heartworm prevention and food. Some programs even offer a return gift of blood at no cost if the donor ever needs it during his or her lifetime.

Animal Blood Resources is an example of the second type of blood bank. It obtains donors through partnerships with rescue groups, providing a working solution for unwanted adult dogs and cats.

These donors are given a temporary home where they can frolic and play, including getting trained for agility! Additionally, there is a force of volunteers who groom, cuddle, walk and play with them. After one year of providing their lifesaving service, every animal is adopted into a permanent home in great health and well socialized.

Could your dog donate?
Donor dogs must be between one- to six-years-old, weigh at least 55 pounds and be free of any medications. Prior to becoming a donor, all dogs are screened for infectious diseases and are given a full veterinary exam to ensure that only healthy dogs enter a donation program.

Next, their blood type is determined. Dogs have six major (but up to 13 different) blood types. The preferred donor is antigen 1.1 negative. In the dog world, they are considered “universal donors” and are similar to type-O universal human donors.

Donor dogs can “roll up their fur sleeves” every 2 to 3 months, but this varies by blood bank. Sedation is not needed—just plenty of head rubs and treats. The blood draw takes about 10 minutes.

A single donation can be used to save up to four lives, because the blood can be separated into two components, red blood cells and plasma.

People understand how important it is to donate blood, and the same holds true for our pets. In the case of canine donations, one dog can give the gift of life to many others. One more reason to add to my list of why dogs are my heroes.

Interested in having your dog become a donor or adopting a retired donor? If you live in California, contact the University of California, Davis, Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at (530) 752-1393. Or ask your veterinarian or local shelter.

Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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