Though blood banks and transfusion medicine for animals seem a wonderful and necessary adjunct to our advances in veterinary care, the back-story behind the products and who gets to use them isn’t always as rosy as the prospect of high end care their presence in the marketplace represents.


Getting blood from dogs? It’s not too tough. But sourcing healthy dogs with the ability to donate regularly? It isn’t as easy as it might sound. Given the quantities required by just one critical German shepherd, Fido’s full year of donations might well be used up in twelve hours.


For many pet blood banks, Greyhounds (due to their high red blood cell counts) and other large-breed donor dogs are the norm. The University of Pennsylvania and other large veterinary institutions offer sophisticated blood donation programs, often with bloodmobiles that make regular stops to make it easy for owners to have their pets donate regularly.


Vet students, too, are encouraged to bring their big ones in for bloodletting. My own two boxers donated regularly while I was in school and it never stressed them out too much. We received free bags of food from Hill’s as a reward for their contributions.


But how about the cats? Ever pondered the miracle of how cat blood came to reside in your local referral hospital’s dedicated fridge? It generally didn’t come from homed and adored donor kitties. Colonies of donor cats living la vida lockup is more like it. While they’re generally incredibly well-treated and content, it’s not what you might envision  when your cat needs a transfusion.


Donor cats in hospitals like ours are treated very well. Grumpy has a better life than she would have led out of doors. But she has to be sedated every time she donates (no more often than every two months). That’s the norm for cat blood donations—which makes it difficult for owners to consent to it. A kitty bloodmobile is not practical in most situations; there just aren't enough donors.


Then there’s the issue of the scarcity: Who gets the blood? When in a hospital, even a large one, a cat or dog might be denied blood in favor of storing reserves for healthier ones who may require it. Clients are sometimes asked to find their own donors when they have FIV or FeLV positive cats, for example.


One internist at a large veterinary teaching hospital (who preferred to remain anonymous) explained the situation as "extremely trying." Having to deny an FIV positive kitty a blood transfusion because the supply is limited and a better candidate might need it presents a grueling ethical dilemma. And it’s just getting worse.


You see, the more owners are willing to seek out treatments like transfusions, the more cats and dogs we’ll need to donate blood. And while dogs do pretty well in donor situations, the programs aren't sufficiently widespread to meet the growing demand. The cat situation is far worse, requiring months of wait time for blood products in some areas of the country.


Yet, I find that pet owners are largely ignorant of the issues involved. And so many of us are willing to help that it seems more effective PR efforts might be in order. But that's expensive. And this is where I tilt my head like a herding dog still confused over the sound of a new signal: What exactly is it we’re supposed to do?


If you live in an area with a vet school or a large regional hospital, call and express your interest in donating your pet’s blood. 


Short of that, call your local referral hospital and ask if they keep a list of potential donors. Cats and dogs will have to first qualify by meeting weight and health standards, including thorough blood screenings.


For my part, my pets are too small (over fifty pound for dogs and over ten for cats are typical limits). But maybe... just maybe… yours can make a difference.



Learn more about pet blood donations:


Life-Savers: Dogs Who Donate Blood


Cat Blood Donors



Image: Tanya_Knyazeva / Shutterstock