Just like humans, our animal companions have an urgent need for blood on a daily basis. Trauma, autoimmune diseases, bone marrow surgery, cancer, and abdominal surgery are just a few reasons blood is needed to save the life of a beloved dog or cat. And just like humans, that blood is only available through the selflessness and commitment of donors — animal donors.
Since there are only a handful of national blood banks, veterinary clinics depend on larger emergency or specialty hospital blood banks when they need blood. Some smaller clinics without access to a blood bank or emergency hospital rely on their staff’s pets and the community’s pet “volunteers” when blood is needed in an emergency.
Your pet could save another animal’s life by becoming a blood donor
The process of giving blood is simple for animals with the right temperament. And the good they’d be doing means everything to the owner of the pet on the receiving end of that donation. If you’re considering volunteering with your pet, there are a few things to consider. The criteria will differ slightly depending on the clinic or blood bank, but here are some guidelines.
Blood Donor Requirements for Dogs
To be eligible to donate, dogs must:
- Be one to eight years old
- Weigh at least 50 pounds
- Have never had a blood transfusion
- Pass basic blood screening tests as well as tests for infectious diseases that may be passed through the blood (like heartworm or tick-borne disease)
- Not be on any medication (except flea, tick, and heartworm preventatives)
- Be current on all required vaccines (DHPP, Rabies)
- Have their blood screened to see what type it is
Dogs must also have a calm and friendly disposition and be comfortable around strangers.
The process for dog blood donations
Dogs are not generally sedated for the process of blood donation. They’re usually lying down on their belly or side, and a small needle is placed in the jugular vein in their neck, where about 2 cups of blood are removed. Besides a small needle prick (similar to getting a vaccine), there should be no discomfort or negative effects. The process takes less than ten minutes. Dogs replenish the blood cells lost in about 2–3 weeks. And no special post-donation care is required.
Blood Donor Requirements for Cats
To be eligible to donate, cats must:
- Be one to eight years of age
- Weigh at least nine pounds
- Have never had a blood transfusion
- Be up to date on vaccines
- Be an indoor-only cat
- Pass basic blood screening and infectious disease tests (must be negative for FELV and FIV)
- Have their blood checked to see what type it is
Cats must also have a friendly and calm disposition and not get stressed during car rides or being placed inside a carrier.
The process for cat blood donations
Cats need a light sedative for their donation procedure. They’re placed lying on their side while about 4 tablespoons of blood are removed from the jugular vein in their neck. Because they’re asleep, there is no discomfort. Most cats are given subcutaneous fluids afterward to keep them hydrated. This is a simple procedure, necessary because cats are much smaller than dogs. Cats may be a little groggy for a few hours after they donate.
Every part of the blood is used when an animal donates. After being collected, it can be stored whole or separated into plasma and red blood cells. Red cells are only considered usable for 35 days after being collected and stored under refrigeration. The plasma is frozen and can keep for several years.
Are There Risks to Your Pet Giving Blood?
The benefits of giving blood far outweigh the risks. Usually, the worst thing that can happen after a pet gives blood is some mild bruising. Anemia is not generally a risk because pets are checked in advance to ensure they have a normal red cell count. Dogs receive snacks before and after giving blood to keep their energy up, and cats get fluids to replace any volume lost. Since cats are placed under sedation, there is always a slight chance of complications. This is why they are screened beforehand. They must pass blood tests and have a comprehensive physical exam to make sure they are healthy, with no underlying conditions like kidney disease or a heart murmur.
Let’s talk a bit more about sedation for cats. It may sound a little intimidating but don’t worry. Sedation and anesthesia are not the same thing. In general, anesthesia carries a higher risk for complications than sedation because the level of unconsciousness is deeper, and the cat cannot be immediately awakened in an emergency.
Sedation is a state where the animal does not have total loss of consciousnesses. They may have a slight awareness of their surroundings, but their muscles are totally relaxed, and they don't feel pain. This is similar to the sedation a human receives for a short procedure like an endoscopy. Anesthesia, on the other hand, is total loss of consciousness. It affects the respiratory and cardiovascular system on a much deeper level that sedation.
Anesthesia wears off over time as the body metabolizes the medications that were used. Whereas some types of sedatives are immediately reversible. And if they’re not, they still wear off faster than anesthetics.
How Often Can A Dog or Cat Donate Blood?
If your pet passes the physical and temperament requirements, they can donate blood on a regular basis. Most private blood banks, and those run by emergency or specialty hospitals, ask for a commitment of 4 to 6 donations per year because it is costly to screen animals prior to donation. A cat can generally give blood every 8 weeks, and dogs can donate every 5 to 7 weeks.
Are Dog and Cat Blood the Same?
Dogs and cats have their own blood types, just like humans. Dogs cannot receive blood from a cat, and a cat cannot receive blood from a dog (except in rare and extreme cases where a lifesaving source of species-specific blood is not available). There are 11 blood types identified in dogs and 3 in cats. Your pet’s blood is checked for type in the screening process. This helps to avoid potentially life-threatening transfusion reactions for an animal receiving the blood. Some dogs have a universal blood type that can be accepted by dogs of any other blood type. For obvious reasons, those dogs are the cream of the crop for donating. Interestingly, cats don’t have a universal blood type, so making sure their blood is typed before a donation is especially important.
Blood is often in short supply and always needed. In an emergency, it can mean the difference between life and death for someone’s best friend. If you’re interested in signing your pet up to be one of these heroes, contact your local specialty or emergency clinic or the school of veterinary medicine in your state. You can also contact the North American Veterinary Blood Bank to see if your pet qualifies to be a future blood donor and pet-saving hero.