Pexels | Nadya Vasil'eva

When an Alaskan Klee Kai dog, Ichigo, needed an urgent blood transfusion in Singapore due to a rare infection, his owner, Dylan Zhang, took to Facebook to urgently seek blood donors. 

Ichigo suffered from a blood-borne parasite infection known as Babesia, which caused his red blood cell count to drop to 11 percent. Within 24 hours, Ichigo managed to receive a blood transfusion from a donor, Harley, a black Labrador, which saved his life.

Pets may urgently require blood transfusions to treat a variety of medical conditions such as blood loss due to conditions such as trauma, cancer, poisoning and clotting disorders. Locating a blood donor can be a stressful experience when a pet is struggling to stay alive. Often the search can be painstaking, and even fruitless, because people often have the misconception that blood donation is harmful for animals.

Currently, veterinary clinics run informal blood donor programs to facilitate the search for donors. A typical pet blood donation program enlists a pool of cats and dogs donors. In the event a blood transfusion is needed, the clinic will contact the owner to bring his pet down for a pre-donation test. Such a registry speeds up the search for a suitable donor.

In cases of emergencies when suitable blood is unavailable, vets perform xenotransfusion (the transfer of blood between different species) and autotransfusion where a patient receives its own blood. 

For xenotransfusion of canine blood to cats who will die without it, many surviving cats also received subsequent transfusions of cat blood.

With a blood bank for cats and dogs opening in March 2022, animals in need can receive a transfusion immediately, reduce the time of surgery by hours, and increase the survival rate. 

The first blood bank in Singapore is located at veterinary emergency and specialty hospital VES Hospital. Instead of relying solely on pet blood donation, the blood bank allows for more blood products and replacement measures to be readily available and reduces the risks of transfusion reactions.

Blood transfusion in pets explained

A dog or cat might need a blood transfusion to replace blood after severe blood loss from either surgery or trauma, said Dr. Dr. Aja Senestraro, a veterinarian based in Seattle, Washington.

Whether it is going to a blood bank or directly to a waiting dog, the blood is collected and kept in special bags that keep the blood from clotting. To prevent a serious immune reaction to any of a donor dog’s blood types, the veterinarian will perform blood typing and cross-matching, she added.

During a transfusion, these bags are hooked up to an IV (intravenous) fluid line with a special filter built-in. The blood transfusion is given directly into the vein through the IV catheter.

The total dose of blood to be transfused is based on the dog’s size and how much blood they have lost. This is given over a specific time period, and the dog is monitored very closely to be sure they are not developing an allergic reaction.

For many health issues, a single blood transfusion is all that is needed to help the dog recover. For some diseases where there is ongoing blood loss or destruction of blood cells, the dog may need repeated blood transfusions, added Dr. Senestraro.

No animal is harmed during a blood donation. According to vets, there is little risk involved in the process. Mild sedation may be used to prevent the animal from moving too much and becoming stressed during the donation.

In pet blood donation, there are requirements that make ideal dog and cat donors

While in a true emergency, theoretically, any cat or dog could donate blood. Unlike many cat donors which require mild sedation, dogs are better blood donors. Typically vets prefer a DEA 1 Negative blood type for dogs, but there are a few more qualifications that make ideal donors. Since the process takes about 15 to 30 minutes, the pet should have a calm demeanor and low-stress level.

The ideal dog for donating blood is:

  • Weigh at least 20kg for a dog donor (and at a healthy weight for their size; larger dogs can donate a larger volume of blood more easily and frequently than smaller dogs)
  • 1 to 8 years old. 
  • Up to date on vaccinations
  • Healthy (with no heart murmur)
  • Not on any medication
  • Free of infectious disease, parasites and blood-borne diseases
  • Calm and low-stress level 
  • DEA 1 Negative for dogs
  • Has never received a blood transfusion

The ideal cat for donating blood is:

  • Good temperament and health
  • Able to tolerate restraint and venipuncture (collection of blood from vein)
  • 1 to 8 years old
  • Weighs at least 5kg
  • Male or nulliparous (never pregnant) female
  • Up to date on vaccinations
  • On heartworm preventive and tick/flea control
  • Has never received a blood transfusion
  • Not on any medications