Give blood, Fido. Your life may depend on it some day.
For more than a decade, the three Veterinary School nurses who comprise the Penn Animal Blood Bank staff have been spreading this message to dog owners.
The Penn Animal Blood Bank is the oldest volunteer-based animal blood program in the country, and its bloodmobile is the only one of its kind anywhere.
The team’s pioneering efforts in the field of animal transfusion medicine have been emulated across the country, and have won them recognition here at home, in the form of a 2002 Models of Excellence Award (Current, Feb. 21), honoring staff members for work above and beyond job expectations that made a significant contribution to the University. The nurses and 10 others were honored at a ceremony April 15.
Dog owners have responded with enthusiasm to the plea for blood donations. Every year, the blood bank processes roughly 2,000 units of blood donated by dogs brought in to the bank at the Veterinary Hospital and to the bank’s bloodmobile, which visits veterinary clinics and kennel clubs in a four-state region.
We spoke with the team earlier this year about their work.
Q. What led to the creation of the blood bank?
A. Donna: It was started back in 1987 as a response to a need for blood products that we had, and we looked at the way they did it in human medicine, and applied that concept to [dogs]. It just sort of took off from there. The more blood products we had available, the more we used them, and the more we used them, the more we learned, and it just grew so quickly that in 1988, I went public with the program and spent probably the next two years educating the public about the need for transfusions in animals, and usually the first thing people say is that they didn’t realize that dogs need blood transfusions, and then the next thing that they’d say is, How can we help? So it just kept on getting bigger and bigger and bigger until what you have today is over 3,000 donors that have been part of the program.
Q. How do you collect the blood, and what do you do with it?
A. Wendy: At least for the last six or seven years, we have scheduled anywhere from two to four blood drives a week. Basically, we have someone who belongs to a dog club or a kennel club or someone at a veterinary clinic actually organize a blood drive for us. They make appointments, they recruit dogs according to our qualifications, and then we take the bloodmobile out at a specific time and spend about four hours collecting blood from anywhere from 10 to 16 dogs and come back and then process all the blood products.
We use hardly any whole blood any more. We have the equipment necessary to process the products into packed red cells and transfusion plasma or other plasma products.
[We hold drives in] Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. The general rule is that we need to be within an hour’s drive, [because] we need to get the products, get back, process them and freeze them [the same day]. We also hold in-house drives for faculty, staff and student dogs, and those who want to volunteer for that can do that right here in the hospital.
Q. Do you have to restrain the dogs so you can collect the blood?
A. Wendy: A lot of [owners] actually pick the dog up and lay it immediately down onto its side on the table, and the owner is at [the dog’s] head. Not only are they helping us restrain the dog lightly by being at its head, but they’re also right in the dog’s face to let the dog know that everything’s okay. And the only other restraint we use is holding the front legs back a little bit [to] make the neck more accessible. [Blood is drawn from the dog’s jugular vein.]
We have dogs that will get up after they donate and we give them a bowl of some of this gloppy canned food as a reward. Our favorite thing is that a lot of the dogs come running back into the bloodmobile after they’ve donated a few times, and we always like to think that they’re coming back to see us, but we have to resign to the fact that they’re coming in to just—
Q. get the dog food?
A. Donna: [laughter] It’s all about the food.
Q. What’s the most satisfying part of the job?
A. Donna: I think the most satisfying part of the job is the look on people’s faces when they see that their dog has successfully given blood. Because in their eyes, their dog has just done something that will save lives. I don’t know that it gets any better than that.
Wendy: I find the most satisfying thing for me is to actually go out and educate the public on why dogs need transfusions. The different diseases that can cause [situations] where they need a transfusion that people would never even think about.
Kym: The animals that come in here, they’re so ill, and so in need of help, and [we] actually have some of those animals’ owners call us or write us or whatever afterwards to say, Thank you so much for the blood transfusion. Just to see those animals go away healthy again, it touches very much my heart.
Dog owners interested in volunteering their animals for blood donation may call the Penn Animal Blood Bank at 215-898-7222.
Originally published on April 25, 2002