Blood Donor Dogs: The Importance of Canine Blood Transfusion

Can your dog give the gift of life?
By Shea Cox DVM, CVPP, CHPV, March 2012, Updated June 2021
blood transfusion supplied by a fellow canine.

Eight-year-old Yorkie mix, Kimiko, was saved by an unlikely hero when she was on the brink of death. Kimiko was in dire straits, as she was severely anemic, emaciated, unresponsive and hypothermic when she was brought to the Arizona Humane Society by an Emergency Animal Medical Technician™. Her situation was so grave, veterinarians weren’t sure she was going to make it but wanted to give her every chance at survival possible. That’s when they turned to an innovative medical procedure uncommon in animal shelters.

The need for blood or plasma transfusions is a frequent occurrence in our veterinary referral hospital, and can be crucial in many situations including trauma, immune diseases, blood-loss during surgery.

In order to save Kimiko's life, vets knew she needed a blood transfusion and turned to another patient also receiving medical care to help donate blood with the lifesaving procedure. As it would turn out, Jasmine, a one-and-a-half year old Labrador Retriever mix also being treated for a broken leg, was the perfect pup for the procedure. After receiving the blood transfusion, Kimiko’s vitals immediately started trending upward and she continues to get better each day, thanks to this innovative care and the selflessness of man’s best friend. Originally unable to stand or eat due to being so weak, this sweet Yorkie mix now greets people by wagging her tail and will even roll over for belly rubs – a telltale sign she is feeling and doing much better and perhaps even received some of Jasmine’s sweet Lab personality with the transfusion!

Kimiko and Jasmine were in the right place at the right time, but that isn't the only way blood transfusions happen. When a lifesaving blood transfusion is recommended, the natural question by worried pet parents is, “Where do you get this from?” People are generally surprised when I answer, that just like for us people, there are canine blood banks.

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Canine Blood Banks

Veterinary blood banks are a fairly new concept, developed during the past 10 to 20 years, and there are essentially two kinds: collection centers using volunteer dogs and centers that house and care for their own group of donor dogs who live on the grounds of the blood bank.

Community-based canine donor programs rely on volunteers to bring in their pets for blood donation. There are several veterinary schools that participate in this kind of program, including University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. Incentives to volunteers can include free annual health exams and blood work, heartworm prevention and food. Some programs even offer a return gift of blood at no cost if the donor ever needs it during his or her lifetime.

Animal Blood Resources is an example of the second type of blood bank. It obtains donors through partnerships with rescue groups, providing a working solution for unwanted adult dogs and cats. These donors are given a temporary home where volunteers care for them. After one year of providing their lifesaving service, every animal is adopted into a permanent home.

Could your dog donate?

Donor dogs must be between one- to six-years-old, weigh at least 55 pounds and be free of any medications. Prior to becoming a donor, all dogs are screened for infectious diseases and are given a full veterinary exam to ensure that only healthy dogs enter a donation program.

Next, their blood type is determined. Dogs have six major (but up to 13 different) blood types. The preferred donor is antigen 1.1 negative. In the dog world, they are considered “universal donors” and are similar to type-O universal human donors.

Donor dogs can “roll up their fur sleeves” every 2 to 3 months, but this varies by blood bank. Sedation is not needed—just plenty of head rubs and treats. The blood draw takes about 10 minutes.

A single donation can be used to save up to four lives, because the blood can be separated into two components, red blood cells and plasma.

People understand how important it is to donate blood, and the same holds true for our pets. In the case of canine donations, one dog can give the gift of life to many others. One more reason to add to my list of why dogs are my heroes.

Interested in having your dog become a donor or adopting a retired donor? See our resource list below, ask your veterinarian or local shelter.

Dog Blood Banks

University of California - Davis: Blood Bank & Transfusion Center

Colorado State University: VTH Blood Bank

University of Florida: UF Canine Blood Bank

Iowa State University: Veterinary Medical Center Animal Blood Bank

Kansas State University: K-State Animal Blood Bank

North Carolina University: NC State Veterinary Hospital

Ohio State University: OSU Animal Blood Bank

University of Pennsylvania: Penn Animal Blood Bank

Michigan State University: MSU Blood Donor Program

The University of Minnesota: Companion Animal Blood Bank

University of Wisconsin: School of Veterinary Medicine Blood Bank

DoveLewis Emergency Hospital: Animal Blood Bank

Photo by Arizona Humane Society

Dr. Shea Cox is the founder of BluePearl Pet Hospice and is a global leader in animal hospice and palliative care. With a focus on technology, innovation and education, her efforts are changing the end-of-life landscape in veterinary medicine.