Many pet owners may be surprised when their veterinarian tells them their sick dog or cat needs a blood transfusion. Transfusions are a large part of emergency and critical care veterinary medicine. Dogs and cats (and even horses, birds, and rabbits!) can receive blood transfusions to treat numerous diseases and injuries.
Interestingly, the very first successful blood transfusion, which paved the way for transfusion medicine in humans, was performed from dog to dog in 1665. Around that same time, animal-to-human transfusions were administered, with mixed results. In the 1800s, blood transfusions began gaining popularity in human medicine, but veterinary transfusions and blood banking are relatively recent practices which have been growing over the past few decades.
There are several types of blood products used in veterinary medicine; the most commonly used are fresh whole blood, packed red blood cells, and plasma. Fresh whole blood contains all the components of circulating blood: red and white blood cells, platelets, proteins, and clotting factors. Packed red blood cells have been separated from the liquid portion of blood, which provides a large quantity of red blood cells condensed into a smaller volume. Plasma is the liquid portion of blood, which contains clotting factors and proteins. Each blood product is used for different purposes, depending on the disease being treated.
There are multiple reasons why a veterinarian will recommend a blood transfusion for a critically ill pet. Dogs and cats who have suffered trauma, such as being hit by a car, may be bleeding excessively from an external wound or have internal bleeding. These pets need a blood transfusion to replace blood that has been lost. Pets can suffer from immune-mediated diseases that cause the body to attack its own red blood cells, diminishing them and causing anemia. There are also diseases which decrease the amount of platelets or clotting factors in the bloodstream, which may cause spontaneous bleeding in the dog or cat. A condition commonly seen in veterinary ERs is ingestion of anticoagulant rodenticide. This type of rat poison affects the animal’s vitamin K production, which is needed to produce clotting factors. Without clotting factors, the animal will have spontaneous hemorrhage internally, which can be fatal. Plasma is often administered in these cases to replenish the animal’s clotting factors.
Blood transfusions in veterinary medicine are performed by veterinary nurses under the supervision of veterinarians. Patients receiving transfusions are always closely monitored to ensure their safety.
Due to the increased popularity of transfusions as treatment, there is more demand for veterinary blood products. Many veterinary colleges and some large emergency and specialty veterinary hospitals across the nation have the capability to process blood and provide blood products to pets in need. There aren’t enough veterinary blood banks or blood donors, however, and there is still a shortage of blood products in the veterinary community.
Many blood banks obtain their blood from pets in their own community. They reach out to pet owners in their area and ask them to allow their dogs or cats to become blood donors and help save the lives of other companion animals. Not every pet can be a blood donor. There are age, weight, and health requirements that blood banks follow to ensure the safety of the donor and of the blood products. These donor pets give blood several times a year, just like people. One dog who donates four to five times per year can help save the lives of up to ten other dogs who need transfusions. These donor cats and dogs are certainly heroes in the eyes of their owners and the blood bank employees who work with them. And speaking from experience, as a pet owner, it is very rewarding to know that your pet has contributed to the greater good in its own way. Ask your vet about donating today.