Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Pet Blood Donation: Pets Saving Pets

Pet Column for the week of February 4, 2008

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Sarah Dowling
Information Specialist

Pet blood donation, while not as widely known as its human counterpart, is an essential resource for veterinarians and their patients. Blood transfusions are used by veterinarians to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from acute trauma to life-threatening autoimmune diseases.

According to Dr. Rachael Carpenter, a veterinary anesthesiologist director of the Transfusion Medicine Program at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, blood donations can be used either as whole blood, packed red blood cells, plasma, or platelets. The most common use for donated blood is as packed red blood cells, which contains the red blood cells necessary for transporting oxygen throughout the body.

Internal and external bleeding caused by trauma, hemorrhaging during surgery, ingestion of toxins, and many diseases can cause a pet to lose red blood cells and develop life-threatening anemia that requires a transfusion.

The College of Veterinary Medicine's Veterinary Teaching Hospital, like most large veterinary referral clinics, utilizes national blood banks as well as a volunteer donor system to supply its patients with the blood they need to survive.

"Students, faculty and staff associated with the College are able to volunteer their pets to be blood donors," explains Dr. Carpenter. "These pets are essentially on call, and will only donate blood if the need for it arises. Right now we have a list of about 20 to 30 cats and dogs that are on our blood donor list."

The donation process is similar to that used for human blood donors where animals are only eligible to donate blood if they pass the screening process. Donor animals should be young adults in good general health that are negative for any diseases, current on vaccines, and have normal blood work. As long as the animal passes these requirements and is a dog weighing more than 50 pounds or a cat weighing more than 10 pounds, the animal is cleared to donate blood.

Cats and dogs that are eligible to donate blood are tested to determine blood type, a piece of information that will determine which recipients are able to receive the donated blood. Just as with humans, blood typing the recipient animal is also important since complications can result if the blood types do not match and the animal rejects the donor blood.

"For cats, blood typing is a critical step in the transfusion process in order to prevent dangerous and possibly fatal reactions to the donor blood," says Dr. Carpenter. "Here dogs have the upper hand, since they can receive any blood type the first time they are transfused, however this would only be done in an emergency situation where an immediate transfusion is needed."

Dr. Carpenter explains that the donation process is relatively simple. When a volunteer pet is brought into the clinic to donate blood the animal is given a general physical exam and survey blood work may be done to ensure the health of the donor.

Since most pets are reluctant to hold still for the length of time required to collect a donation, the pet is usually sedated while the blood is drawn. Once the animal has recovered from the sedation they are fed a small meal and sent home to be pampered by their owners.

While the College only currently accepts volunteer animals that are owned by students, faculty, and staff, some private practice veterinary hospitals may also have a list of donors they can call on for fresh blood donations when the need arises.

For more information about pet blood transfusions or blood donation, contact your local veterinarian.