banking on it: a look at companion animal blood banks

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Aug 08 2013

Every day, life-threatening illnesses or accidents occur that require blood transfusions. When humans have this need, their doctors can easily look to blood banks to supply them with lifesaving blood products, and now our pets can rely on blood banking systems, too!

Human blood banks have been around for a while. The first hospital blood bank was established in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital in 1937 and the development of large scale blood banks came about early on in World War II. As is often the case, veterinary medicine draws on the experience of human medicine, and veterinary blood banks have been established to provide blood products for those in need.

Your own veterinary office might even have a blood bank. Larger practices and emergency facilities can store their own blood products, making it easy to obtain necessary transfusion products quickly. However, the average veterinary clinic may not be able to justify the cost of having a blood bank in-house. Instead, they may rely on donors.

Veterinary blood donors are life savers. Often, veterinary clinics will have an office dog or cat (or both!) that lives at the clinic and can be used for emergency blood donation. These pets generally roam the clinic freely during the day and are considered part of the veterinary family. Free room and board (and rubs and kisses) in exchange for a little bit of blood every so often is a pretty great deal!

Other clinics prefer to keep a list of clients who have pets that can be potential blood donors. This allows for a wide range of pets available for donation. Not every pet can be a donor, though. Dogs and cats should be between the ages of one to seven or eight years old and should be very healthy. Cats should be over ten pounds and dogs should be about fifty pounds or larger.

All potential donor should have a physical exam immediately prior to donation, and a complete blood count (CBC) should be performed as well. Ideally, when first being established as a donor, more extensive testing should be performed, including heartworm testing, FELV/FIV testing for cats, and testing for other blood pathogens, like tick-borne disease.

Dogs and cats who will be donors should also have their blood tested for type. Just as is the case in human medicine, if pets are transfused with incompatible blood, transfusion reactions will occur and could be life-threatening. There are more than 12 blood types for dogs, but the most important grouping to consider is the DEA 1.1 type. Generally speaking, DEA 1.1 positive dogs can be considered universal recipients, and DEA 1.1 negative dogs are universal donors.

Cats have three blood types: A, B, or AB. The vast majority of cats in the United States are type A, but some purebred cats are type B. Very rarely are cats type AB.

If you’ve established that your pet is large enough and healthy enough to donate, there’s one more qualification: willingness. Ideally, your pet is calm and is a willing participant to donation. It is a relatively quick procedure and is no more painful than a blood draw, but a wiggly, wild dog is generally not a good candidate. While pets can be sedated for blood draws, it certainly makes everyone’s lives easier if the pet sits calmly for his or her donation.

If you think your pet has what it takes to be a super star life saver, check with your vet to see if your dog or cat’s services are needed. Also, check around to see if there’s a large scale blood bank near you (there are several in the United States), as they are always looking for donors. A healthy donor can save up to four lives, depending on how the blood components are separated out, so what are you and your pet waiting for?