Save a Dog’s Life

Dogs need blood transfusions too.

Picture this: in a scene of utter chaos and a moment that seems to be suspended in time, you watch your beloved dog get hit by a car. You rush her to the emergency vet, who informs you she has lost a lot of blood and will need a blood transfusion.

A transfusion? You think. Dogs get transfusions? It had never occurred to you before this moment. But where does that blood come from?

Blood Donation Programs for Dogs

I spoke with Jocelyn Pratt, Director of Blue Ridge Veterinary Blood Bank (BRVBB) in Purcellville, Virginia, about their blood donation program.

They were originally founded in 1993 by Dr. Ann Schneider, who recognized the need for humanely-screened blood products for dogs on the East Coast. Before she established EVBB (the previous blood bank that BRVBB took over in 2011), the only blood programs existed in California.

“The dogs who give blood in California live in a closed colony,” Pratt explained. “This means they live on site full time to donate blood.”

BRVBB sought to change that. All dogs that donate with them are volunteer dogs, Pratt told me, and they get trained to donate and rewarded for their donation. “They basically snuggle with our handler and enjoy delicious treats while blood is drawn,” Pratt joked.

What makes a dog a good candidate? First, they have to be happy and healthy. This includes year-round flea and tick prevention as well as heartworm prevention. “The dog has to like people,” Pratt said, because they will be lovingly handled during donation. “And, really,” Pratt added, “they have to have an awesome owner, because the owner is the one devoting the time to taking the dog to the donation site and being a cheerleader for our program.”

Happy dog? Check! Likes people? Check! 40 pounds or larger? Check! On preventatives for flea, tick, and heartworm? Check! So, you think your dog has what it takes to become a donor? Donors must also be current on rabies and dhppcv combination vaccinations. If your dog meets these criteria, the next step would be getting your dog into one of their convenient donation locations.

“We like to see how the dog interacts,” Pratt explained. Which makes sense because, like she said, the dog is going to be learning something completely new and different during their visit.

What kind of situation would call for a blood transfusion for a dog? Injury with severe blood loss, heat stroke, snake bites, burns, and illness are just some instances. “Think of anything that would be cause for a transfusion in a person, and it’s the same for dogs,” Pratt explained.

The Process

Similar to the way people get matched for donations, dogs get matched too. “But it’s on a lesser scale,” Pratt explained.

Dogs have about 13 blood types, but BRVBB screens for the blood type DEA 1.1. This blood type has a positive and a negative. “DEA 1.1+ is more common,” Pratt said, “Sixty-five percent of dogs have this type, and it’s not universal. Only thirty-five percent of dogs have DEA 1.1-, and is used as a universal type.”

Dogs can safely donate every three weeks, but they only schedule donations every five to seven weeks, and they ask for a one-year commitment.

The Need

Just as with humans, blood donation for dogs is in high-demand.

“We can’t keep up with demand,” Pratt stated. BRVBB ships blood to veterinarians all over the country. In fact, they are the largest commercial blood bank for dogs that does not keep dogs in a closed colony facility.

“We have shipped to every state,” Pratt told me. “We do 50 to 100 collections a week. Each collection has two to four parts, and each of those parts can be used on a separate dog.”

Pratt said there are only five blood donation centers for dogs across the United States, not including smaller hospital groups.

You do the math.

One way they are trying to resolve this is through education. “We stress the importance of maximizing blood products by blood typing and providing support and tools for your vet to do in-house blood collections with screened donors if needed,” Pratt explained. They also provide transfusion information and support.

Donation Lifetime and Impact

“We begin screening at nine months,” Pratt said, “and they can have their first donation at one year.” Most puppies have settled by then. “We do have plenty of energetic adult donors, though, that come in and jump right up on the table to snuggle and get treats,” Pratt added. Dogs can donate up until eight years of age, and some even a little longer depending on their health.

“Donors are with us an average of four to five years,” Pratt stated. Some dogs have given as much as a total of six gallons of blood in their time.

There are two options for donation: ½ pint and full pint. “Half pint donors can save two lives with each donation, and full pint donors can save four lives,” Pratt said.

“Just think of the number of lives you can save,” said Peggy Ellis, Donor Coordinator.

Kofi. Photo courtesy of Blue Ride Veterinary Blood Bank (BRVBB)

Pratt told me a story of one donor dog. As a puppy, his name was Milo, and he had parvovirus. Canine parvovirus is highly contagious, and unvaccinated dogs and puppies younger than four months old are at the highest risk. It affects the dog’s gastrointestinal tract and is easily transmitted between places via contaminated cages, dogs, shoes, and other objects. There is no drug that will destroy the virus, and treatment involves primarily intensive care efforts to combat the symptoms. In the case of Milo, a blood transfusion saved his life. “His adult name was Kofi, and he grew up to be a donor,” Pratt concluded.

Thanks to other dedicated dog owners, Milo got a new lease on life. His owners wanted to give back.

So, let’s revisit our emergency trip to the veterinarian: what if your dog needed blood?