The need for dog blood donation is making pet medicine look more human

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Every year in the United States, an estimated 6.8 million people donate blood — rolling up their sleeves at blood banks, workplaces, schools or mobile blood-collection vans to help strangers in need. Trauma, surgical complications and illnesses are among the many conditions that are helped with a transfusion of healthy blood.

But humans aren’t the only ones lining up to donate these days. The demand for dog donors is growing along with people’s willingness to pay for expensive veterinary procedures in areas like neurology and oncology that were once reserved for human patients.

John Rush, a former Canadian football player, had donated his own blood before — but he was surprised when the Canadian animal blood bank reached out to ask if his 150-pound dog might want to be a blood donor, too. “I remember reading that message and being like, ‘Dogs can donate blood?’” Rush recalled. Though Rush was a professional athlete, a lot of his social media followers are there for his rescue dogs and animal activism, both of which he posts about frequently.

The need for doggy donors is urgent. If the human blood supply occasionally has shortages, the veterinary profession is constantly operating at a deficit. Only a certain percentage of dogs is eligible to donate blood (a population that might be shrinking as more people seek out small dogs) and many owners don’t even know that such a thing exists. In the United States, there’s no national organization devoted to veterinary blood donation, only a network of local commercial blood banks and often veterinarians who might have to rely on donors as needed. (While cats occasionally need blood transfusions too, few felines give blood willingly. Because they need to be sedated for the procedure, most cat donors belong to veterinary employees.)

“Every day, veterinarians make decisions not based on what the animal needs but on whether or not they have access to blood,” said Anne Hale, chief development officer for VetStem, a regenerative medicine company, who has been involved in animal banking since 1995. “It’s frustrating after being in this for over 20 years that we’re not any closer to making sure there’s a nationwide supply.”

Rush’s dog Bonhomme, which is French for “good boy,” is a Great Pyrenees who checked all the boxes for a blood donor. He was well over the minimum weight of roughly 50 pounds, in good health, happy to lie on a table and be petted while the veterinarians took blood from the jugular vein in his neck (no sedation required), and happens to be the canine version of a universal blood donor. The process of donation itself is only a few minutes long. It usually ends with treats and a toy. Rush often stops at Starbucks to get Bonhomme a puppuccino, too. “He gets spoiled because of it,” Rush said, adding that it’s well-deserved.

Bonhomme took a brief break from donating blood last year when he was diagnosed with cancer and had to have an eye removed. In photos, he now looks like he’s always winking. But, Rush said, Bonhomme has been able to donate blood again: “Every time you donate, you’re saving one or multiple dogs’ lives.”

The problem is that increasingly there are fewer dogs even capable of being blood donors.

A recent Packaged Facts study found that only 17 percent of dog owners who got a new dog in the 12-month period before February 2022 opted for one over 60 pounds. Ownership of medium-sized dogs (21-60 pounds) has been slowly increasing from 35.2 percent of dog-owning households in 2012 to 41.2 in 2021. Dogs this size can receive blood transfusions, but with a typical 50-pound weight limit for donors, they can’t contribute blood to other animals.

Tricky logistics

To widen the potential pool of donors, University of Florida veterinary blood bank manager Camille Kelly has started a “half pint” program that accepts dogs in the 40- to 50-pound range. The blood bank, run by the university’s Small Animal Hospital, currently has 52 enrolled donors but is hoping to get closer to 80 to meet the facility’s needs. Because sterile blood bags come premade with a set amount of anticoagulant, Kelly’s team has to remove a portion of it without breaching sterility prior to each collection from a “half pint” dog. “Those little-bit-smaller herding breeds are all really well represented,” Kelly said of Florida’s dogs, but she couldn’t use them as donors until now.

Just as with human blood, some dog blood types are more valuable than others. Human blood types are based on three antigens. These are proteins found on red blood cells that can produce a damaging immune response if incompatible blood is transfused. Heidi Houchen, blood bank director for VCA Northwest, a 24-hour emergency veterinary hospital, likes to explain it using a hat metaphor. If you’re wearing a beret in a town of beret-wearers, you’ll fit right in. In a town of fedoras, you’d be spotted right away. If you aren’t wearing a hat, you can put any hat on — a universal donor. If the body senses blood cells with “the wrong hat,” it can cause blood vessels to actually burst inside the body and potentially lead to death for the recipient. In other cases, reactions to substances in the blood can cause something that looks like an allergic reaction.

Human medicine is relatively good at typing blood quickly. This makes it easy for blood donation programs to accept — and use — all blood types. That’s not the case for dogs, whose blood can have seven different antigens, which produce 13 blood groups (as they’re referred to in canines). Doing a full blood analysis in a dog is expensive and usually requires sending samples by mail to a lab. In an emergency, there isn’t time to fully type a dog who needs a transfusion, making the need for universal donor blood that much more important. As in humans, only about 7 percent of dogs are universal donors.

Image of dog in medical clinic being held by multiple people as they withdraw blood

Unfortunately, while humans can give blood into their senior years, dogs age out of donation by around 10 years old depending on the dog’s health and the individual program. Dogs typically have to enroll before about 5 years old because the cost and time involved in onboarding a dog is too high to just get a few visits out of a single donor.

Human blood groups were only discovered in the early 1900s. It took until the 1960s for canine blood groups to be fully isolated. That doesn’t mean people didn’t try transfusions beforehand — in people and in animals — only that they could often lead to illness or death in patients who received the wrong blood type. The very first transfusion of blood from one animal to another was actually done with two dogs in the 1600s — only one of whom survived the procedure. Scientists of the period often attempted to transfuse blood between separate species, hoping that the best qualities of an animal blood donor might temper personality flaws or mental illness in human patients.

Luckily, that era of interspecies blood transfusions ended quickly. But for a few hundred years, blood transfusions in people were treated as the Hail Mary treatment for situations that would be fatal without them, like blood loss during childbirth. Blood transfusions for dogs were enough of an event in the mid-1900s that newspapers often reported on the stories. They were similarly only sometimes successful.

Before canine blood banking began taking off in the early 2000s, veterinarians and staff usually made note of a few dogs whose owners could be on call in case of a sudden need for a transfusion or had large dogs themselves. Some independent or rural veterinarians without access to a commercial blood supply still regularly rely on these methods to transfer whole blood to a patient in need.

Donations lag veterinary advances

Even as America nudges toward a nation of medium- and small-dog owners, the need for canine donor blood keeps growing. When veterinary blood banking started, there were only a few specialty hospitals or universities doing “high-level procedures” or critical care, said Hale. “The need for blood or repeated transfusion was not as intensive as it is now.” Today, there are emergency vet clinics everywhere. Just between 2019 and 2020, overall spending on veterinary care in the U.S. rose 7.2 percent to $31 billion a year. Pet insurance is a growing industry, and fundraising campaigns for veterinary care through sites like GoFundMe are popular enough to have their own category.

“People love their furry family members, and sometimes it’s not just one transfusion,” Houchen said. Genetic disorders like hemophilia can lead to a need for multiple transfusions over a lifetime. But it can also be bad luck: Perhaps the dog has a bad flea and tick infestation as a puppy, a car accident as a young dog, and cancer treatments as a senior. “People are willing to do more, and there are more animals,” Hale said. In 2012, 46.3 million households had a dog, according to an American Pet Products Association survey. In 2021, the number increased to 69 million during the covid puppy boom.

If the somewhat ad hoc approach to doggy blood donation was working before, it’s not anymore. There are too many pets, and the demand even for regular veterinary services is higher than the current supply. Many people in blood banking would love to see a national canine blood bank, something akin to a Red Cross for dogs that could send blood where it was most needed, though they’re not hopeful it’ll happen any time soon. Many canine blood banks are associated with an emergency veterinary hospital or university and operate at a financial loss, according to blood bank managers, because these places need blood to stay in operation and perform the services dogs need.

At the busy VCA Northwest hospital, two rooms are devoted to the blood bank program full time — a quiet donation room and another with refrigerated storage, a centrifuge and other equipment to process the blood. Unlike human blood mobiles where a volunteer can handle and monitor multiple patients at once, canine donations require two or three trained veterinary staff to make sure the dog is still, comfortable and safe during the procedure. Then there are all the perks given to blood donors. They vary from program to program, but in addition to free bloodwork (to make sure the donor blood is safe for use and to determine blood type), dogs often get free flea and tick medicine. Some programs offer bags of food, treats or other incentives to keep the donors coming back every two to three months for years. Often these perks are donated to the programs, but managing it all is still a lot of work. “It’s super hands on and super labor intensive,” Houchen said. “By virtue of what it is, it can’t be a moneymaker.”

But even though people involved in canine blood banking are eager to get the word out to potential donors, owners of eligible dogs often don’t know it’s even an option. “I wish I had known about it sooner,” said Carren Mackiewicz, whose greyhound London became a blood donor in February, soon after she found out there was a blood bank nearby. Mackiewicz’s first greyhound, Harriett, is now 10 and much too old to participate in the program, though Mackiewicz thinks she would have been a perfect donor. This is a shame for the local blood bank, too.

Greyhounds, who are often retired racing dogs, make good pets, but they are also ideal blood donors. They have a higher-than-usual red blood cell count, and a large percentage of them have the universal donor blood group. Roughly 50 percent of the dogs in VCA Northwest’s blood bank program are currently greyhounds, a fact that’s reflected in the décor. There’s a quilt with fabric photos of greyhounds hanging in the donation room, won at a raffle during one of the local greyhound events that blood bank employees regularly attend. Many of the dogs in the photos are donors, Houchen said.

Mackiewicz takes photos of London every time she goes in to donate blood and shares them on social media. “I do what I can to spread awareness about it,” she said. But since canine bloodmobiles aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as human ones, it doesn’t have the same visibility. People who work with dogs — everyone from groomers to dog walkers to veterinarians — are going to have to do more to spread the word.

Because dogs are constantly aging out of blood donation and blood banks are mostly independent, there aren’t statistics on how many dogs are currently blood donors. What’s clear is that if people love their pets enough to spend thousands of dollars on medical care, more dogs are going to need to donate blood to save those lives. “People always ask me if I’m still looking for blood donors,” Houchen said with a laugh because the answer is so obvious to her. She’s always looking for more.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.