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Saving lives, one pet at a time

MU’s veterinary college performed more than 1,000 life-saving
blood transfusions on animals last year
Monday, August 25, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:22 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

These unsung heroes lead a dog’s life. Meet Giddo, Wessor, Morton, Gnat, Goliath and Cletus, blood donor greyhounds at MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine. They give blood to help save the lives of fellow canines.

Matt Haight, internal medical technician at the college, says blood transfusion in animals is common veterinary practice. The veterinary college performed more than 1,000 last year.

To qualify as donors, dogs must weigh 65 pounds or more and have undergone multiple blood tests and have completed a physical examination. Usually, larger breeds such as greyhounds are preferred because of their size and ability to remain calm.

A transfusion, which costs between $120 and $300, is relatively simple and painless. Blood is drawn with a needle, just as with humans.

“Usually a donor is very cooperative while he donates blood,” Haight said.

Dogs injured in car crashes, those that are anemic and those suffering from heat stroke or undergoing chemotherapy for cancer are among the ones that require emergency transfusions.

Last summer, Lady, a 5-year-old cocker spaniel, was admitted to the intensive care unit of the campus veterinary hospital when she came down with immune mediated hemolytic anemia, a disease of the immune system that attacks red blood cells. Lady was terribly sick and was not responding to steroids. But three transfusions later, she was back on her paws.

Owner Sarah Perkins recalls that Lady’s illness was horrible.

“I thought I had lost Lady,” the nurse at Boone Hospital said. “She wouldn’t have lived without those blood donations.”

While wounded or sick dogs get a literal shot in the arm with transfusions, donor dogs get a pretty good deal, too. Dr. Leah Cohn, associate professor of veterinary medicine at MU, said that most of their donor dogs are large greyhounds that have been rescued from tracks after their racing careers are over.

These dogs are either euthanized or given out for adoption. Because it is difficult to find owners for these dogs, giving them jobs as blood donors at a veterinary clinic for two or three years offers a kind of halfway house.

“During the time they spend at the clinic, these dogs and cats get used to people and interacting with them,” Cohn said. “By the time we adopt them out, they make excellent pets.”

Karen Cutter, a bookkeeper for Gerke & Associates in Columbia, couldn’t agree more. When she lost her dog three years ago, she decided to adopt Rose, a greyhound who had been a blood donor. Cutter opted for an older dog because she said she finds puppies a bit more of a handful.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” Cutter said. “Rose is a very affectionate dog and shares a wonderful relationship with my three cats. Because she came from such a controlled environment, initially Rose was like a creature from another planet. She was not used to walking around an entire floor by herself. But she has blossomed into a wonderful pet.”

Cats are also donors. Unlike dogs, they don’t have a universal blood type. Right now, the resident donor cats at the veterinary college are Joli, Farney, Calla, Peaches and Jade.

In most cases, blood donation creates a win-win situation for donor and recipient. However, Cohn stressed the importance of strict health checks to keep donor pets infection-free.

“Not many people are aware that dogs and cats have their own unique blood type, just like humans,” she said. “Before transfusion, we have to cross-match the blood of the donor animal with the recipient.”

Despite precautions, complications sometimes occur. Haight acknowledged that “as in the case of humans, there can be adverse reactions to blood transfusions. There is always that chance.”


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