Blood sample

One of the many advances I’ve seen in my 33-year veterinary career is the development of transfusion medicine for animals. In many cases, blood transfusions can serve as a lifeline until dogs can get better on their own. Here's a little background on when dogs need transfusions and how your dog can become a donor.

When Do Dogs Need Transfusions?

Dogs need red blood cells when they suffer severe blood loss from traumatic injuries or conditions such as acute or chronic hemolytic disease or chronic anemia. Dogs may also receive transfusions of fresh-frozen plasma to treat or control bleeding disorders such as von Willebrand’s disease or to provide other plasma proteins and globulins in the event of illnesses or infectious diseases such as pancreatitis or parvovirus.

Large veterinary hospitals can go through blood quickly if they are treating a dog who is bleeding heavily. Where do they get the blood they need, and how do they replenish the supply? Commercial animal blood banks are one source. And some veterinary hospitals keep donor animals “on staff” or rely on volunteer donors.

Which Dogs Can Donate?

Just like people, dogs have different blood types. Blood typing identifies whether a dog has a blood type that’s appropriate for transfusions. Canine blood types, known as Dog Erythrocyte Antigens (DEA), fall into eight different groups. Not all of the types are appropriate for transfusions, but DEA 4 is generally considered to be universal.

Each blood bank or veterinary hospital has specific criteria for canine donors, but they usually look for dogs with the following qualifications:

  • A calm, manageable, docile temperament.
  • Between one and seven years old.
  • A weight of 50 pounds or more.
  • Free of Lyme disease, ehrlichia or any other disease that could be passed on through a blood transfusion.
  • Shorthaired (easier to draw blood).
  • Up-to-date on vaccinations.
  • On heartworm preventive.

Short-faced (brachycephalic) breeds such as Bulldogs and Pugs need not apply, but any other breed or mix who meets the screening criteria may be considered as a potential blood donor.

Retired racing Greyhounds are the donor dogs of choice at Hemopet in Garden Grove, California, which was the first private nonprofit animal blood bank. The dogs live at the facility and donate for at least one year, after which they are made available for adoption. Other blood banks may obtain donor dogs from shelters and then adopt them out after a given period. That’s what I call a win-win for both the dogs and the facilities.

What do the dogs think about their work as donors? It’s a good guess that they like it just fine. In the same way that the Red Cross gives you cookies and orange juice after you donate, these dogs get plenty of treats as a reward, not to mention lots of petting and attention.

If you are interested in having your dog become a blood donor, ask your veterinarian if there is a local blood bank that would welcome him as a volunteer. His donation could save a life.