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Pets need blood donors, too

Zach Vance • Sep 23, 2018 at 12:05 AM

It may seem obvious, but humans are not the only beings in need of blood donors.

Our beloved pets need them, too.

Although the demand is not as stringent as humans, having a supply of cat or dog blood available during an emergency situation can mean the difference between life and death — just ask local pet owner Rebecca Henderson.

Several years ago, Henderson noticed her dog, Vera, had left behind a pink stain one morning on a sheet that had been spread across her bed.

“I noticed there just a little pinking of the white sheet where her left, front paw had been. Then I noticed she was kind of limping on it. So I looked, and it was bleeding a little bit. Not much, but I could tell her nail was split,” Henderson recalled.

Afraid to trim the nail herself, Henderson took Vera to Robinson Animal Hospital’s downtown location and dropped her off.

“When I got back home, my phone was ringing and it was (the late) Dr. James Robinson. He said, ‘Rebecca, I need to know the answer to this right now.’ He didn’t say ‘Hello.’ He didn’t say, ‘How are you?’ My heart almost dropped,” Henderson said.

“He said someone had dropped off a dog, and I don’t remember the details at this point, but he said this dog is very sick and needs an immediate blood transfusion. He said, ‘Can I use some of Vera’s blood?’ So I said ‘sure.’”

With the help of Vera’s blood, Henderson said the dog survived.

Since then, Vera has donated blood approximately 14 times to Robinson Animal Hospital, as it was needed, and her other Newfoundland, Elsa, has donated between six or eight times.

“I would just hope that if one of my dogs needed blood, somebody would do it. It’s kind of like paying it forward,” Henderson said.

Dr. Josh Hinkle, veterinarian at Robinson Animal Hospital, said blood transfusions for pets are often needed for the same reasons as humans due to blood loss from trauma or disease.

“A transfusion is going to be pretty similar as it is in human medicine. The biggest difference is dogs have blood types, like people have blood types, but dog blood is typed differently,” Hinkle said.

Dogs have more than 12 blood groups and seven different blood types, while cats have three different blood types: A, B or AB.

As with humans, Hinkle said ideal pet blood donors need to be healthy, with no diseases, and be of median weight and age. The blood is normally extracted from the pet’s jugular vein, and whether some form of anesthesia is needed depends on the pet’s temperament.

Most veterinarian offices and animal hospitals, at least in Northeast Tennessee, do not keep large supplies of pet blood on hand.

On the rare occasion a blood transfusion is needed at Veterinary Medical Center in Johnson City, Dr. Dana Still said her staff will often go home, get their own pet and bring it back to donate blood. Hinkle said that also happens sometimes at Robinson Animal Hospital.

“Our need is different (than human blood) in that there isn’t as much pressure, there’s not as much of a need for that blood supply. Also, there are commercial blood banks that we can purchase blood from, and we use those some, but they are not local,” Hinkle said.

“If something happens, if we don’t have that commercial blood available ... then we’ll reach out to our blood donor dogs.”

At the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine, veterinary technician Shanna Hillsman said her department often gets its blood supply from The Veterinarian’s Blood Bank, based in Indiana. She said the blood is stored by itself in a refrigerator, where it’s regularly rotated. Typically, pet blood has a shelf life of about 30 to 45 days.

Some clinics and animal hospitals will offer credits or discounts to the pet donor’s owner, but because the service is rarely needed, it’s not something animal hospitals or clinics usually advertise.

“We don’t advertise it, quite honestly. What we typically do, we have pets that we already know, that are patients, that we know are well taken care of (and) that their health care is up to date.”

Hinkle estimated his clinic does a blood transfusion about once a month.

To learn more about your pet donating blood, Hinkle said to contact your local veterinarian.

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