It rains cats and dogs in the halls of veterinary hospitals in the summer, as adventurous animals get into accidents.
And when they do, like people, they sometimes need blood transfusions and surgeries.
But where does the blood come from?
There aren’t many animal blood banks, and those that do exist are often species-specific. The Winnipeg-based Canadian Animal Blood Bank sends more than 1,000 orders of dog blood every year across Canada, but they don’t handle feline blood, which is much harder to cross-match between donor and recipient, according to Beth Knight, laboratory director at CABB.
To address the shortage, some animal hospitals, like the Mississauga-Oakville Veterinary Emergency Hospital in Ontario, have cats that live in the hospital and donate blood on an as-needed basis to save other critically ill cats. This provides a stable supply of cat blood for the hospital and occasionally for other local animal hospitals, says Jen Kyes, a veterinarian at the Oakville hospital who specializes in emergency and critical care medicine.
The practice remains controversial to some.
Two-year-old Benson traipses about on a table in Specialist Room 1 at the Oakville hospital. He is about to donate blood for the first time.
The 10 donor cats there share a room that’s about 2 by 4 metres, with a big glass wall and lots of toys. The hospital has a project set up — dubbed Henry’s House — to build them a better home. Many of the cats, including Benson, were adopted from shelters. Some had been scheduled to be euthanized.
“Unfortunately, stray cats are a dime a dozen,” says Kyes.
She and her team get Benson ready for his first donation.
Unlike dogs, cats need sedation to give blood as they’re less likely to sit still long enough. Becky Millett, a registered veterinary technician, injects Benson with the sedative.
His pupils dilate quickly, he looks woozy, and he slows down into a state of stupor, catatonic. She rolls him over, his four frozen paws up in the air. His blood pressure is checked: it’s down but in the normal range, given that he’s sedated. His heart rate’s good.
The team shaves a patch of brown tabby fur by his neck — they need easy access to his jugular vein. Millett uses a 19-gauge needle to draw up 60 milliliters of fresh blood. Benson then receives a shot to reverse his stupor. The whole process takes just over 20 minutes.
“He was a great donor,” says Millett, as Benson starts to wake up. He can safely give blood again in six weeks, if it’s needed.
After three years, Benson and other donor cats can retire and become eligible for adoption. Hospital staff are already bidding on who will take the friendly feline home.
Though these donations can save the lives of other cats, not everyone agrees the ends justify the means. Animal ethicist David Sztybel likens programs like this to nonhuman slavery.
“I respect the good intentions of these medical professionals, and they are saving lives. I appreciate that some effort may be made to socialize the slave-cats, play with them, and so on. But I do not agree with slavery, and oppose human slavery even though many benefits were squeezed from the practice,” he writes in an email.
The Oakville hospital also has three donor cats who live in homes. Another Toronto animal hospital places cats with foster families, paying their expenses if the cat is kept indoors and brought in regularly for donation. Once the cats retire from donating, the families usually adopt them.
Cats and dogs require blood transfusions to treat conditions such as anemia, blood loss from an accident, surgery, or a genetic condition, such as hemophilia. Blood banks always need more eligible dog donors.
At the Oakville hospital, the feline blood demand is met. Groggy Benson is recovering in the ICU, and in the fridge, there’s a fresh unit of burgundy blood, ready to save a life.