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Dogs Paying it Forward through Blood Donor Program

Humans are constantly bombarded by messages encouraging us to donate blood. We know it is important for saving lives, so many of us line up to give as often as possible. But did you know the need is also great for our furry canine family members?

Dogs rely on blood donations from other dogs any time they need a transfusion or have a medical emergency involving serious injuries. Thanks to the ongoing global pandemic, there is now a nationwide shortage of dog blood. The good news is that your dog can help bridge the gap and save a life.

North Hills’ resident Susan VanAlstine and her four dogs were avid blood donors for years. They first became aware of the need in 2014, when Pittsburgh Police Canine Officer Rocco was stabbed while apprehending a suspect. “We wanted to do something to help Rocco, so we had our dogs screened to see if they could donate,” VanAlstine said. “We figured even if they couldn’t help Rocco, they could help other canines.”

All four of her dogs passed the blood donor screening process and were accepted into the local canine blood donor program. At that time, the program was operated by the Animal Care and Assistance Fund. Dr. Kenton Rexford, who established the fund, said that there are specific guidelines for dogs who wish to become blood donors. “The process for becoming a donor is not quick,” he said of the two steps involved.

The first is to contact the donation center and make an appointment to have your dogs screened. Dr. Rexford said that the screening includes a comprehensive blood panel to check the dog’s health and to type its blood.

Dog blood typing is different from human blood typing. For starters, dogs have 13 group systems and are classified as either positive or negative within a group. Canine blood groups most recognized are DEA-1.1, DEA-1.2, DEA-3, DEA-4, DEA-5, and DEA-7. Most dogs are DEA1.1 positive. Dogs that are DEA-1.1 negative are considered universal donors.

Once the blood panel comes back, if the dog is healthy, it moves on to the next step in the process, which involves making a blood donation.

There are other requirements for dog blood donors beyond health, however. Dog donors must be under the age of 8 and weigh at least 50 pounds. Smaller dog breeds are unable to safely tolerate the 500 milliliters of blood drawn during a donation procedure.

Prepping your pooch before a blood donation is easy. Since dogs are sometimes given light sedation to keep them still and calm while donating, Dr. Rexford recommends not feeding them before they donate. Increased thirst is normal after donating as your dog works to replenish its blood supply.

“Dogs can donate blood every eight weeks, but most donor sites only schedule them every three months,” Dr. Rexford advised.

VanAlstine said her four dogs bounced back quickly after donating, but always were a bit “goofy” for a few hours due to the sedation. She warned that some dogs may not have an appetite for the rest of the day after donating, so not to panic if yours is one of them. VanAlstine always got a report card following a donation that included details about how her dog handled the donor process and tips for things to watch for afterward.

Her dogs have since aged out of the canine blood donation program, but she fondly recalls the experience and encourages others to consider becoming donors. “It’s a really good pay-it-forward moment,” she said. “At the end of the day, your dog may be the one that needs a blood donation.”

Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center (PVSEC) now runs the canine blood donor program, having taken over donor responsibilities in 2019. Dog owners who wish to learn more about having their dogs screened as potential donors can contact PVSEC at 412-366-3400.

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