What Owners Need to Know About Pet Organ Transplants

operating room
Photo courtesy of Dr. Lillian Aronson
Surgeons prepare the operating room for a cat kidney transplant.

If the need arises, humans can go on an organ transplant list for everything from lungs to livers. But for pets, it's much more complicated. We spoke with two experts to find out what you need to know when it comes to organ transplants in animals.

Receiving a Transplant

The only type of organ transplant available right now for pets is a kidney transplant, according to Dr. Lillian Aronson, associate professor of small animal surgery at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. These are performed mostly in cats, due to difficulty suppressing the immune systems of dogs. Dogs are more likely to reject a donor kidney unless it comes from a related dog, which can sometimes be hard to find.

For cats, there is no need for the donor and recipient to be related. Dr. Chad Schmiedt, associate professor of soft tissue surgery at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says blood cross matches are done to make sure the cats are compatible. Most cats match each other, he says. The three options for finding a donor cat are:

  • If you have another cat in your household who is young and healthy
  • Finding a donor cat at a shelter (and then adopting that cat after the transplant)
  • Contacting a research vendor to order a cat who was bred for the purpose of being a donor 

All donor cats need to be young, but at least a year old, and very healthy. Choosing a donor cat from a shelter is done very carefully, to make sure he carries no diseases that can be transmitted to the recipient.

If your cat is experiencing kidney failure and is in need of a transplant, she will have to fulfill certain requirements to qualify.

“The cat has to be relatively healthy, other than its kidney failure," Dr. Schmiedt says. “It doesn’t make sense to take a kidney from a donor and then the recipient has heart disease and does not live six months after. They need a healthy heart and no other infections or diseases.”

Once that is determined, it can take a couple of weeks to find a donor cat. After surgery, the donor will be hospital-bound for two to four days, while the recipient will stay in the hospital for a couple of weeks. As for cost, Dr. Schmiedt says it varies, but the transplant is usually between $10,000 and $20,000, with the donor surgery costing between $3,000 and $5,000. This doesn’t include the thousands of dollars an owner will have to spend on medication and vet checks after the surgery.

After a transplant, the recipient tends to live an average of two to three years. She gains a new companion as well. “The owner of the recipient is responsible for adopting the donor cat, so we’re saving two cats’ lives,” Dr. Aronson says.

The reason veterinarians only transplant kidneys right now is because any other organ transplant, like the heart or lungs, would kill the donor. Dr. Schmiedt says there’s no infrastructure set up in case of accidental pet deaths, either.

“If [a human] needs a heart, is sitting and waiting, and a young healthy kid is in a motorcycle wreck and dies, there is an infrastructure to get the heart to a recipient. If a young healthy dog is hit by a car, there is no infrastructure at all to get that animal’s organs into a recipient with any type of speed,” Dr. Schmiedt says.

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