Byron doesn’t stop smiling.
From the minute he rushes into the exam room of the Brandon Hills Veterinary Clinic and scrambles up onto the table, to when he makes a mad dash for the door ten minutes later, there is a permanent grin on his face, his tail happily wagging behind him. It’s a good day – he’s just given blood.
Much like humans, animals in veterinary care occasionally require blood products, which can be expensive, and in many isolated communities, difficult to obtain. Enter the Canadian Animal Blood Bank (CABB) – the only not-for-profit blood bank for animals in the country.
The blood donation process for our canine companions is quite similar to how humans donate blood, with a few variations. A small blood sample is taken while the dog is waiting. It’s then spun in a centrifuge and tested to ensure the dog is healthy enough to donate. After getting the all-clear, it’s time to jump onto the exam table.
If someone were to walk in at this stage, the process may seem a little intimidating. An assistant holds the dog down on their side, while the owner stays by their pet’s head to comfort them. Blood is drawn from the jugular vein on the dog’s neck, and unless the hair is extremely short, a small patch of fur is shaved away to expose the vein. Another person then moves in with a rather large-looking needle. Sometimes it takes a try or two to hit the right spot, but none of the dogs show any sign of discomfort.
A dog gives approximately 400-450 millilitres of blood – about the same as a human. However, it usually takes just 2-5 minutes, as opposed to 20 minutes for humans. Since there’s no danger of dogs getting light-headed, the process is sped up with the aid of a vacuum pump.
Managing the pump and flow of blood is Laboratory Director Beth Knight. She explains the Canadian Animal Blood Bank (CABB) started with a challenge issued to Manitoba veterinarian Ken Mould in 1994 at a lecture in Ontario. The speaker challenged those in attendance to create their own blood bank, instead of continuing to buy commercial products. Mould took this challenge to heart, and got in contact with the president of Red River College (RRC), who became a founding partner of the Manitoba Animal Blood Bank in 1996.
Support for the new blood bank grew quickly. “The demand of owners wanting their pets to participate outgrew the demand of blood products,” explains Knight. By 1998, with the overwhelming support for the program, they changed their name to the Canadian Animal Blood Bank, and began sharing blood products with emergency clinics within Canada. They also act as a distribution center for the blood products.
In 2001, the animal health program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) in Edmonton formed a satellite collection site, using the program in the same way RRC does – to train animal health technology students.
“By 2007 we had expanded from only collecting at Red River College to at veterinary clinics,” says Knight. “Now it’s totally shifted to we’re nearly on the road all the time, and only have one collection a month at Red River.” She credits both the donor communities and local veterinarians across the province for this turn around.
Meanwhile, in the front of the clinic, a very excited Ty is waiting his turn to donate. His owner, Miranda Cochrane, says the best part for them is giving back.
“He’s a rescue himself,” explains Cochrane, “so he’s helping other ones that need help.”
At the end of the day, the units collected are transported back to Winnipeg to be processed. Knight compares this to separating milk – the blood is put into a centrifuge which splits the unit into plasma and red blood cells.
“Putting the bag of blood into a centrifuge forces the separation that might take 8 to 12 hours to do,” says Knight, “I can do it in 8 minutes instead.”
The plasma is frozen, and can be stored for up to 2 years. The red blood cells are more fragile, and are kept in a refrigerator for up to 42 days.
The donated blood has many uses. “It all depends on what kind of situation the dog is in,” explains Gina Marsh. She’s a Registered Animal Health Technologist who works for the CABB, travelling with Knight to local veterinarian offices all across southern Manitoba.
The red blood cells could be used for transfusions after a collision with a vehicle, while the plasma can be employed in treating parvovirus, an extremely contagious virus in dogs, to which young puppies are exceptionally susceptible.
Back on the table, Byron finishes his 4th donation, and is showered in praise, along with a few well-deserved treats. He is one of eighteen dogs that came through the doors of the Brandon Hills Veterinary Clinic that day.
Most had donated before, including Kallie, who was the veteran of the day. She belongs to a staff member at the clinic and gave her 11th unit of blood. But new donors are always welcome, including Trigger, who came by to give blood for the first time. While both dog and owner came in with a bit of uncertainty, they walked out into the sunshine a short time later with Trigger happily sporting a new bandana marking his first donation.
Does all this sound like something you and your canine would be interested in? If so, there are a few things to keep in mind. The younger the dog, the better – ideally, dogs will begin donating between the ages of 1 and 8, and continue until they are 10 years old. They also must be in good health, and weigh at least 50 pounds. Your pet should be recommended by a vet, which can be done by approaching your vet yourself, or asking the CABB to speak with them. Many clinics are also constantly on the lookout for emergency donors, when there is an immediate need for blood. Mobile clinics are regularly held across the province, including places such as Oakbank, Stonewall, Selkirk, and Brandon, in addition to numerous locations in Winnipeg.
The blood we collected today will be shipped to clinics across the country, where it will be used to help countless animals through tough times. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about – helping out other dogs – something everyone can smile about.