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The gift of life, for a cookie

Fri., Aug. 31, 2007

Like any experienced blood donor, Jacob knows that the price of patience is a cookie.

So he doesn’t flinch when the needle glides into his vein, and he’s completely calm for the six minutes it takes to fill a plastic bag with 450 milliliters of life-saving plasma and cells.

But when a bell signals that the bag is full, Jacob’s decorum vanishes.

He jumps up, all four legs flying, his long tail whipping the air.

This blood donor is a dog, after all, one of 14 canine contributors at the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Pullman. And he’s ready for his biscuit.

Jacob and his brother, Quinn, both 4-year-old greyhounds, were the latest donors this week in a WSU program that has spent two decades trying to solve a problem that few people know exists: There’s an ongoing shortage of animal blood for use in surgeries and transfusions.

“All the major banks are back-ordered,” said Jane Wardrop, 55, the WSU professor and clinic chief who helped launch the canine blood donation effort in the region and across the nation.

At any given time, national supplies of dog blood lag weeks or months behind the need, said Pat Kaufman, 59, president of the Animal Blood Bank in Dixon, Calif., the oldest of eight banks across the country.

“It was just extreme around the beginning of this year,” she said. “We were four months behind. And then we have cat blood, too, and we’re always behind.”

Kaufman’s company collects blood from 500 to 1,000 dogs a week and about 150 cats, then sells the blood to veterinarians and others across the country and around the world.

When animal blood banks first began in the U.S. in the late 1980s, shortages were caused by skepticism. Few veterinarians performed blood transfusions or complicated surgeries, so they didn’t see the need, said Kaufman and Wardrop, a transfusion specialist. Traditionally, vets who needed blood to treat clients would use their own dogs or cats.

But in recent years, the demand for animal blood has skyrocketed, sparked not only by advances in veterinary medicine, but also by affluent pet owners willing to pay for life-saving treatments.

“We’re no longer a rural society that looks at the dog as a farm animal or a piece of equipment,” Kaufman said. “People have moved them into their own homes and given them the same care they would their families.”

The ability to provide such care has been boosted by growing enrollment in pet insurance programs. In a country where people own 73 million dogs and 90 million cats, according to the Humane Society of the United States, about 4 percent of pet owners now have animal insurance. Together, the top two pet insurance companies – Veterinary Pet Insurance of Brea, Calif., and Pethealth Inc. of Oakville, Ontario – counted nearly 618,000 policies in 2006, up from about 200,000 policies in 2001.

“There’s now great wealth and great disposable income,” Kaufman said. “If we went into a recession, they might take Fluffy to the pound.”

No such fate awaited Munju, the 11-year-old golden retriever owned by Evelyn Kamitomo, of Spokane. When the family pooch came down last month with an ailment that caused her to create antibodies against her own blood, Kamitomo thought they’d lost her. A local vet transfused Munju with some blood from Jesse, the family’s other dog, but it wasn’t enough. Real help arrived only after Kamitomo drove Munju to WSU, where she received blood from donor dogs.

“I’d never heard of that before. I thought I’d just have to put her down,” said Kamitomo, who paid $3,000 in vet bills to save Munju. “Without that, she wouldn’t be here.”

WSU veterinary school students collected about 300 units of blood and blood products for use in about 200 animals last year, Wardrop said. Each unit of blood can be divided for use in as many as four animals. She has given as little as 40 milliliters of blood to an ailing Chihuahua and as many as 17 whole units of blood to a miniature pinscher with clotting problems.

Keeping up with the need requires constant vigilance, said Wardrop. “My nightmare is to have something like an Irish wolfhound that walks in bleeding,” she said.

Wardrop regularly recruits blood donors from students, faculty, staff and community residents.

Canine candidates are happy, healthy dogs who weigh between 60 pounds and 90 pounds – and who aren’t easily stressed.

That describes greyhounds Jacob and Quinn perfectly, said Bonnie G. Campbell, the WSU veterinary surgeon who owns them. She brings the dogs in every eight weeks or so.

“They lie down and get a belly rub. For Jacob, it’s like going to a spa,” said Campbell. “As a surgeon here, I see the benefit of having that product handy.”

Drawing blood from an animal is a lot like a human donation. Technicians tap the jugular vein, partly because it’s accessible and partly to speed up the process. After donating, dogs receive treats and petting as positive reinforcement for their effort.

The process is similar for cats but much more difficult, Wardrop says: “They don’t like to sit still.”

Like people, animals have different blood types. There are more than a dozen known types for dogs, but about six main types of dog erythrocyte antigens, or DEA. Cats have three types: A, B, or AB.

Most programs in the U.S. seek volunteer donors, but in California, using home pets is against the law, Kaufman said. Instead, she maintains about 1,000 animals mostly owned by veterinarians and kennels. Most are animals that are available for adoption, but unlikely to be chosen because of negative or dangerous personality traits. They’re well cared-for and comfortable in their environment, Kaufman added.

The prospect of dogs being kept solely as blood donors bothers animal advocacy agencies such as PETA – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – and the Humane Society of the United States.

“These animals are helping other animals, but what is the quality of life of this individual animal?” said Stephanie Shain, a spokeswoman with the humane society.

In general, however, animal rights groups support the use of donor animals to help others as long as it doesn’t cause undue distress.

“I have two dogs, one of whom would be tremendously distressed by having a needle plunged into her veins, and one who would roll over and have no idea that a needle had been inserted as long as her belly was receiving the attention it deserved,” said Daphna Nachminovitch, a PETA spokeswoman.

It can be tricky to pair the right donor with the right recipient, Wardrop said. But when the arrangement works, the rewards are worth it.

“All you have to do is see these patients in here and see the one who is dying and then see them after they get the blood,” she said. “I do this because I know the difference it makes.”


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