How Humans Can Save Pets with Blood Transfusions

Ken Tudor, DVM
Published: December 4, 2014
How Humans Can Save Pets with Blood Transfusions

The ability to transfuse blood has proved to be a valuable medical procedure for saving lives, both human and animal. Blood transfusions, however, require stringent matching to avoid life-threatening reactions in blood recipients. It is uncommon for humans to donate blood to animals for these reasons. But brand new research suggests that humans can donate a blood serum protein called albumin and save the lives of their pets.

What's Important About Serum Protein in Blood

When most people think of blood they typically think of red blood cells and their important function of carrying oxygen to the cells of the body. But blood contains many other cells and chemicals that are equally important. Blood contains white blood cells and antibodies to fight off infections. Special cells and chemicals also promote clotting after injury to protect against excessive blood loss.

But one crucial blood protein is called albumin. Albumin is necessary in blood to act like a sponge and keep the water content of blood in the arteries and veins. Arteries and veins are not lifeless pipes. They are made of cells that are connected to each other in a cylinder to form a hose. But the joints of these cells are not water tight and can leak that water that is a major component of blood. Serum albumin creates an osmotic force that attracts water so it doesn’t leak from the blood vessels through the cell junctions.

Dog Diseases that Reduce Serum Albumin in Blood

The lack of protein intake or protein loss in animals can result in losses of serum albumin levels. Decreased levels of albumin result in water leaking from blood vessels and pooling in body cavities. Starving children have pot bellies because the lack of dietary protein leads to a decrease of serum albumin and results in leakage of water into the abdominal cavity. Puppies and kittens with parasites will have the same pot-bellied appearance because their intestinal worms are consuming all of the protein in the diet. With severe decreases in serum albumin, the chest cavity can fill with water, causing a life threating situation where the human or pet dies of drowning in their own body fluids.

Animals with certain intestinal diseases also experience hypoalbuminemia, as low serum albumin is called. Dogs and cats with severe inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) have a much thickened lining of the intestines due to inflammation of unknown cause. The increased thickness makes it difficult to absorb dietary protein and it goes wasted in the animal's stool. Severely affected animals can become hypoalbuminemic and begin accumulating water in their abdomen and chest cavities. Another disease called protein losing enteropathy or PLE also interferes with protein absorption and can cause the same symptoms.

During these episodes of hypoalbuminemia transfusions of blood serum can reverse the fluid accumulation and give veterinarians an opportunity to make dietary adjustments to manage the condition.

Recent Research

At the recent American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, veterinary researchers presented a study* where human serum albumin was transfused to dogs with IBD and PLE that were experiencing acute fluid accumulation in the abdomen and chest due to low serum albumin. They found that the transfusions were effective, safe, and had rejections rates no higher than is expected with blood or other types of transfusions.

This research suggests that you can now help your pet in the event of a hypoalbuminemia.

Dr. Ken Tudor

*This study has not yet been published.

Image: Ljiljana Jankovic / Shutterstock

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