No one ever expects to need a blood transfusion, but if you do, that donated blood can save your life. The same is true for pets. If a dog or cat loses a lot of blood because of a trauma—say from cuts, bites, or other wounds, or even during a surgery—your veterinarian may recommend a blood transfusion. 

That life-saving blood might come from a commercial blood bank. Or in some states, veterinary hospitals can maintain a community donation program and use that blood to support their own patients. However, in the past year and a half, both commercial blood bank vendors and community donor programs struggled to maintain adequate supplies of blood for these emergency situations. 

“Last year, the supply for blood could not keep up with the demand from veterinary practices,” says veterinary emergency and critical care specialist Dr. J. Michael Walters, Medical Director at VCA West Coast in Fountain Valley, Calif. “In some cases, the commercial blood banks we normally work with couldn’t give us any blood at all. In other cases, our vendors would limit any one veterinary hospital’s total order, so they could spread around access to the blood supplies they did have.”

Managing the shortage

During the worst of the shortage, veterinary hospitals were doing everything they could to help each other out. “If we had any blood we could spare, we would offer it to other hospitals,” says Dr. Walters. “And if we were short, we’d put out a call—beg and borrow. But the reality was that in the past 12 to 18 months, there were a lot of veterinary hospitals that were out of blood.”

Overall, the situation is getting better, he says. “Commercial sources have been able to build a better supply chain. And at VCA West Coast, we expanded the number of suppliers we work with. But we can still run into trouble if we experience a perfect storm of cases and need more blood than normal.”

In some states, veterinary practices can maintain their own community donor programs and store the blood to use with their own patients. But maintaining that kind of program is a big undertaking. The practice team works with regular donors. Each time a dog or cat is scheduled to donate blood, a veterinarian will perform a physical exam and run blood tests, to make sure all participating pets are healthy. Then the veterinary team needs to process the blood for storage and regularly manage the inventory, because the elements of stored blood break down and become less useful over time.

“A veterinary hospital needs 20 to 30 donor dogs and about 10 cats to maintain a robust community blood bank program,” says Dr. Walters. “That a lot to manage. And the veterinary hospital needs enough people and equipment to process and maintain the blood. It’s very labor intensive.” 

Like humans, pets also have specific blood types. Cats have three blood types, and they are particularly sensitive if they get the wrong blood type. So testing their blood type and giving them the right match is critical, even in an emergency. 

With dogs, first time transfusions are far less likely to cause complications—and one of the blood types is universally accepted by other dogs. So in an emergency, a veterinarian could give a dog blood from a universal donor without delaying to test the emergency patient’s blood type. Not surprisingly, this universal donor blood is particularly hard to come by given the general blood shortage. So veterinary hospitals are needing to buy and store more types of blood to be sure they have an accurate match available for their emergency canine patients.

A special contribution

Dr. Walters says it takes pet owners with a special mindset—and a pet that meets specific guidelines—to fuel these lifesaving blood donor programs. “A canine blood donor needs to be 50 pounds or larger—and it has to be a friendly, relaxed dog,” says Dr. Walters. Some dogs will be able to give blood without any sedation. Cats need to be 10 to 12 pounds, and most cats do require light sedation. 

“Pet owners who participate in blood donor programs are providing a life-saving service and benefiting many other pets,” says Dr. Walters. “If you’re asked to offer your pet as a blood donor, please consider it. We want to provide the best possible care for each of our emergency patients. And we always need blood.”

“Dr. Walters says it takes pet owners with a special mindset—and a pet that meets specific guidelines—to fuel these lifesaving blood donor programs. ”