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Blood bank helps four-legged patients

By Val Willingham, CNN
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Dogs give blood
  • Few people ever think about blood donation for pets, but there is a need
  • Depending on the breed or the mix, there could up to 12 or 13 blood types
  • Most dogs retire as donors after the age of 8½ because their bodies are fragile
  • Pups can usually give blood as often as every three weeks

(CNN) -- Diablo is not your typical blood donor. Fuzzy and four legged, the golden retriever is eager to jump up on a table and offer a half-unit or more of blood for a few goodies.

His owner, Jessica Butts, a technician at the Spring Mills Veterinary Hospital in Martinsburg, West Virginia, says her pet is helping other dogs.

"We see a lot of injured animals come into the clinic, especially dogs hit by cars," she explains. "Dogs, when they are hit, can lose a lot of blood internally."

When it comes to pets, veterinarians say few people ever think about blood donation. But the there is a need. Although there are no exact numbers, animal blood transfusions are crucial because dogs and cats, like their owners, suffer from injuries, diseases and anemia.

"People are usually surprised when I tell them I run a canine blood bank," said Ann Schneider, director of the Eastern Veterinary Blood Bank in Severna Park, Maryland. "But there is a blood shortage for pets. There is always a need, and we are here to provide."

Veterinary blood banks are a fairly new concept, with a few popping up over the last 10 years. And although there are other voluntary canine blood banks in the U.S., EVBB is the largest.

Schneider, along with a technician, travels over a 100-mile radius, collecting pints and half-pints from volunteer doggie donors who "roll up their fur" to give. Most of the blood is collected at local veterinary hospitals and then taken back to EVBB to be processed. But the bank does take blood on site. Schneider says not only is the procedure safe, because all the animals are screened ahead of time, but she believes it's more humane.

"Personally, I don't like the idea of having animals on reserve at clinics just to be blood donors," Schneider said. "By using volunteers, the dog comes in, gives blood and goes home to a family."

Collecting blood from a dog can be a little tricky, but Schneider says she knows which donors are nervous and how to handle them. She stresses that the procedure is not painful and that the animals are not sedated. "We take time to calm the dog, and we hug them, let them know they are loved." Schneider said with a smile. "And treats help."

Also, familiarity doesn't hurt.

We take time to calm the dog, and we hug them, let them know they are loved. And treats help.
--Ann Schneider, director of the Eastern Veterinary Blood Bank in Severna Park, Maryland

"Many of our donors know us," Schneider said. "They trust us. So dogs like Diablo just hop on the table and are ready to give."

Dr. Sandra Smith, the owner of Spring Mills, is pleased when her patients' owners say they are happy to be donors. And it helps her practice, should she ever need blood for an injured animal. "These dogs are screened, they are typed," Smith said. "When we get the blood, we know what type to get, and we can provide better quality of care to our patients."

Dogs have six major blood types, although depending on the breed or the mix, there could up to 12 or 13. And you can't give dog blood to a cat. "It would be like giving dog blood to a human," Schneider said. Each species has its own protein, Smith said, and if foreign protein is administered to any animal or human, their white blood cells will attack it. "That can cause serious illness, even death," Smith said.

How are dog people and cat people different?

Since she opened the blood bank in 1993, Schneider said, the facility gives about 25,000 units of blood to different clinics each year. 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. Most of the units are sent to emergency animal hospitals, where local vets can call if they need blood. Smith does not store blood at her clinic. "We don't have that big a need," she said. "The blood will expire. So I get our blood through the emergency clinic, or I send the owner to the emergency clinic with their animal."

EVBB looks for healthy dogs that are vaccinated and have a pretty good temperament: no jumpy Jack Russell or skittish schipperke. That's because most small breeds are too little and too hyper, she says. Although she'll take a more laid-back, medium dog weighing 35 pounds or more, Schneider ideally is looking for pooches that have a universal blood type.

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Larger breeds, like Labs, retrievers, German shepherds, boxers and pit bulls, are often universal donors. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 40 percent of the U.S. dog population has the universal blood type. Greyhounds are 60 percent likely to be universal donors. And although a dog can receive another blood type in an emergency, universal blood or an exact match is best. Also, donors need to be drug-free.

"We look for healthy animals, ones that aren't on medication or have had a series of health problems," Schneider said.

Depending on the age, pups can usually give blood as often as every three weeks. Most dogs retire as donors after the age of 8½ because their bodies are fragile and giving blood can stress an aging animal. Most of the volunteers for EVBB are asked to come in only every two months.

If you are looking for a credible blood bank, the AVMA's Web site provides information on EVBB and also has a blood bank hotline that can find a bank in your area.

As for Schneider, she says her furry volunteers are invaluable. And she hopes more people will consider volunteering their pets.

"People understand how important it is to give blood," she said. "In this case, it's their pets that can give and help save an animal's life."