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Meet the unsung heroes of our canine community: the dog blood donors

WAVES animal hospital helps local dogs donate to support other canines in need

By Emily Fagan
November 26, 2021
Good news
Features

Meet the unsung heroes of our canine community: the dog blood donors

WAVES animal hospital helps local dogs donate to support other canines in need

By Emily Fagan
Nov 26, 2021
Emily Fagan / Capital Daily
Good news
Features

Meet the unsung heroes of our canine community: the dog blood donors

WAVES animal hospital helps local dogs donate to support other canines in need

By Emily Fagan
November 26, 2021
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Meet the unsung heroes of our canine community: the dog blood donors

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It’s not unusual for Shari Rourke to get a call in the middle of the night. But the call isn’t really for her; it’s for Marley, her four-year-old Great Dane, bulldog, and English mastiff mix.

Marley is a universal blood donor, something Rourke found out after her dog had surgery on her back legs. In the world of canine blood donors, that already makes Marley a valuable contributor. Her personality certainly doesn’t hurt, either. 

“Marley is a star; she just lays down and lets us take her blood,” said Trina Legge, the habilitation technician at Westcoast Animal Veterinary Emergency Specialty Hospital (WAVES). “I would say she has probably had the most significant impact on a lot of animals that have been saved here.” 

At WAVES, pets often need blood transfusions during surgeries or to treat conditions such as immune-mediated hemolytic anemia. The need can come on suddenly—too urgently to wait for shipments of blood from the Canadian Animal Blood Bank in Edmonton.

Fortunately, there are many good dogs like Marley on Vancouver Island, who will show up at the drop of a hat.

“If we give them a call—[even] if they answer in the middle of the night, whatever it is—they'll come down,” she said.

Legge has about 10 dogs on her list of emergency donors currently, including her own dog, Mazie. She has seen firsthand the impact these donations can have, especially when larger dogs donate amounts of red blood cells and plasma that can be used to help multiple dogs in need. 

“When I get [a call], I just get an urgency, like, what if this were my dog?” Rourke said. “I just think about if something were to happen to her or [one of my dogs], I would want somebody to do the same thing.”

In some cases, certain types of dog blood can also be used to help cats.

“It's possible that one donation can save three to five dogs,” Legge said. “It has been life saving in so many conditions.” 

Animal hospitals also use feline blood donors to help cats with surgeries and health conditions, but it is collected in smaller quantities and isn’t donated through the Canadian Animal Blood Bank (CABB).

Potential donor dogs have to weigh a minimum of 25 kilograms, be up to date on their vaccines, and pass a health check from their regular vet. Then, after reviewing their medical history, the staff at WAVES will draw a small amount of packed red blood cells to make sure the dog’s blood cell count is high enough for them to donate.

Because of the required weight, the majority of dogs Legge sees for donations are bigger breeds. Greyhounds typically have the blood type to be universal donors, she says, along with mastiffs and bulldogs. 

Shamus, after giving a blood donation, receives a stuffed toy. Photo: Submitted

Last year, CABB collected about 2,000 units of blood from dogs across the country. 

“Orders placed with the CABB for canine blood products have doubled compared to this time last year,” said Bobbie Gray, the blood bank’s western Canada general manager.

“To help us meet the demand and ensure enough blood is always readily available for dogs requiring our lifesaving products, we encourage families with dogs that meet our donor eligibility criteria to please consider enrolling their dog(s) to donate with our program.”

The increase in demand, Gray said, may be related to the increase in pet insurance subscribers, along with an increase in bonds between pets and their owners during the pandemic. 

WAVES alone has overseen 21 canine blood transfusions in the past four months.

The donation process takes about five minutes. Although Rourke says Marley is “a bit of a worrier,” she usually lays down and stays still on the table during the withdrawal while Rourke pets her. Sometimes, WAVES staff will make the process easier by using treats they have on hand.

“I’m not above bribery,” said Legge.

At the end, canine donors get to take home a bag of treats or a toy they pick out. Their owners also receive either $50 credit on their account at WAVES or a gift card to a local business. After three months pass, the dogs are eligible to donate again.

Some Vancouver Island canine blood donors have seen this support come back their way—including Norman, a four-year-old mastiff in Nanaimo whose recent knee surgery was funded by donations from community members inspired by his previous blood donations.

Rourke says that although some people she knows found it strange at first when she told them Marley was a blood donor, she has inspired several friends including her sister-in-law to get their dogs involved in the program.

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There are easy ways dog owners can get their pets used to the donation process, Legge said. Dogs can practice by laying down on their side on a couch or other table-like surfaces while they receive treats and pets, or owners can gently hold the end of an electric toothbrush by their neck to get them used to the sensation they may feel when a patch is shaved for the donation.

The best way to get involved, according to Legge, is to contact her to get your dog involved in the blood donation program or to donate directly to the Canadian Animal Blood Bank. In 2022, she hopes to start regular blood donation drives with 10-12 pets involved each month.

With these blood donations, Legge says WAVES has been able to save local pets’ lives, or give them an extra few months with their families that they may not have had otherwise.

“It's a huge relief for owners to know that it's available—and for the donor families, they are just proud to be able to help,” she said.

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