ATLANTA Kaz the Rottweiler and Othello the domestic short hair cat have more in common than their glossy black coats. They’re part of an unheralded army of animals who give from their jugulars and help save others’ lives.
They’re four-legged blood donors at the ready in metro Atlanta.
With a robust economy, strides in veterinary medicine and people embracing their pets as family members, vets are performing more and more elaborate surgical procedures on pets. More than ever, “people put more into their pets’ care, both financially and emotionally,” said Chris Jones, a resident at the University of Georgia’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
In turn, the demand for dog and cat blood is rising. Vets can buy blood and plasma from blood banks, but the need is outstripping the supply.
Animal Blood Bank in Dixon, Calif., the nation’s largest animal blood supplier, ships up to 2,000 units a month to clinics in the United States and Canada. “Over the past 2 and 1/2 years we’ve seen an increase in demand. It finally got out of hand at the beginning of the year,” said Mike Kaufman, marketing manager. “We’re between four and six weeks back-ordered on blood products.”
In metro Atlanta, animal hospitals and clinics are quietly calling on and building their own donor pools of in-house cats healthy, hefty ones usually adopted from shelters and staff members’ own large pets to avert blood-shortage problems. At the University of Georgia’s teaching hospital, about 20 staff members’ dogs are on a donor list, Mr. Jones said, and the hospital is home to six donor cats.
“We keep four cats in-house, but that sometimes isn’t enough,” said Todd Cain, the technician in charge of the blood supply at Othello’s home, Cobb Veterinary Emergency and Referral Center. “We still end up using our own pets.”
To qualify as donors, animals must have vaccinations and be screened for diseases and blood disorders, a time-consuming and costly process that explains why many clinics rely on blood banks for their supplies. “There’s a lot we have to do to make sure it’s safe, just like in human transfusion medicine,” Mr. Cain said. “We have to screen all our donors, run different tests and blood-type them.”
Qualifying dogs usually weigh at least 50 pounds and are between the ages of 2 and 6. Mr. Cain’s golden-retriever mix, Molly, 4, and his German shepherd mix, Nikko, 6, are among the donors.
“They’re really good,” he said. “I don’t have to give them any sedation. They’ll sit long enough to have it done.”
Each donation takes about 10 minutes, then Mr. Cain rewards the dogs with one of their favorite treats, a jar of baby food. “It’s stinky, so they like it.”
Ice cream is 5-year-old Kaz’s treat after he gives blood, said the Rottweiler’s owner, Jamie McNaught, hospital manager at Pets Are People Too in Midtown.
Donor cats typically weigh more than 10 pounds. Clinics tend to keep them around in part because cat blood and plasma are the scarcest animal blood products.
“Canine blood is easier to get, although right now it’s certainly at a shortage,” said Byron Hawkins, chief of staff at the Cobb emergency center. “It’s because of the size of the animal. A 120-pound Great Dane can give more blood than a 10-pound cat.”
The cats are selected from a shelter, based on their size, apparent age and temperament. “These are kitties who otherwise would have come to the end of their time,” Mr. Hawkins said. They’re medically screened and, if they pass, used as donors for six months then adopted out. The ones who don’t make the cut are not returned to a shelter but kept at the emergency center until homes are found for them.
Mr. Hawkins is careful to point out that in-house donor cats are treated nicely. They are well fed and get good medical care and lots of affection from staff members.
“These cats are living a cush life,” he said. “Half the time people are wanting to adopt them before they’re done with the six months.”
In fact, Mr. Hawkins has grown very attached to Othello, who sometimes lies curled around the back of the veterinarian’s neck as he works at his desk. He’s thinking about bringing the cat home when its days as a donor are done. “He’s a really nice cat.”