Dogs and cats, like humans, sometimes suffer from crises that require the life-saving therapy of being given a blood transfusion. There are many examples of situations where this is necessary, including some medical conditions that cause anaemia, but this week, I was called to treat one of the most classic examples: a dog that was dying from blood loss following a serious road accident. The little dog needed a major operation, but he had lost so much blood that there was a high risk that he would not survive. The only way to give him a reasonable hope of pulling through was to replace the blood he had lost with a transfusion of blood from another dog.
In the human world, there’s an efficient system of blood donation via the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. Volunteers line up to allow blood to be harvested from their own bodies, and this is then stored until it is needed. When a hospital has a crisis that requires a blood transfusion, they have immediate access to blood that has already been collected, tested and stored ready for use.
It’s different in the veterinary world. In the UK there’s a national service for dogs, similar to the human one in Ireland. In Ireland, the market is too small, so it’s left to vets in practice to source blood for their patients whenever it’s needed. Most vet clinics keep a list of patients whose owners have volunteered to bring their dogs along to donate blood in case of an emergency. Not all dogs will be suitable for this: they need to be big animals, and they need to be friendly and calm enough to sit still for fifteen minutes while a pint of blood is harvested from the jugular vein.
This week, when I realised I needed blood as soon as possible, I consulted our database of donor dogs. Charlie was the first on my list: he is a big 7 year old, easy-going, gentle dog: the perfect candidate to be a doggy blood donor. He has given blood previously, three years ago, so he even has experience of doing this.
When I called Stephanie, she was very helpful, agreeing to bring Charlie down immediately. As before, he was the model donor, sitting patiently while I clipped hair from his neck, inserted a large needle into his jugular vein, and drained around a pint of blood into a special collection bag. Charlie went home a few hours later, leaving his bag of blood behind him.
I then did a cross-check with my patient’s own blood, to ensure that there wouldn’t be any sort of adverse reaction. Once this came back clear, the little dog received the full pint of Charlie’s blood. As the blood entered his vein, his condition visibly improved, with his pale white gums gradually turning a deep pink. We did blood tests to monitor the effect of the treatment, and we could see immediately how Charlie’s blood boosted his parameters. Suddenly, the small dog was transformed from a weak, dying animal into a strong patient with a good chance of survival.
Charlie didn’t know that he had saved another dog’s life with his generosity, but Stephanie knows, and as far as she’s concerned, if Charlie could act by free will, it’s precisely what he would do. He’s a dog who is a kind, giving type of creature. If any dog could volunteer to be a regular blood donor, Charlie would be the one.