When Sharon Voss-Northrup noticed that her oldest dog, Shadow, a black Lab mix rescued from a high-kill shelter, had a distended abdomen and was a bit wobbly, she rushed the dog to their family vet. The doctors discovered a strange mass near Shadow’s spleen, liver, and intestines, and Shadow was sent to an emergency hospital for immediate surgery. The mass, it turned out, was a blood clot formed in response to a tumor on Shadow’s liver and several more in her spleen, which ultimately had to be removed. Though the vet’s work was successful, the trauma of Shadow’s surgery caused significant blood loss; to save her life, the vets relied on a blood transfusion.
In human medical practice, this life-saving procedure seems commonplace and completely mundane, but in veterinary medical practice, it’s actually quite miraculous, because donated canine blood is in perpetually short supply. “We’re always battling a critical shortage,” Casey Mills, director of the North American Veterinary Blood Bank (NAVBB), tells us. “We want blood to be a second thought for treatment. We don’t want it to be this terrible struggle of vets calling around in the middle of the night for an emergency.”
According to Mills, the biggest contributor to the blood deficit is a lack of education and awareness; people simply don’t think about canine blood donation until they need it. This was the case for Voss-Northrup, who admits she wasn’t aware of the problem or the need until Shadow received her life-saving transfusion. Since then, she’s made it her mission to not only spread the word, but to give back. Two of her other dogs, Nikita and Ranger Jr., visit the NAVBB clinic monthly to donate blood to dogs like Shadow. “If somebody had not donated their dog’s blood, we wouldn’t have Shadow,” Voss-Northrup says. “We said immediately we’re going to start paying it forward.”
Mills says regular donors like these are critical for veterinarians, who call NAVBB daily searching for blood products that match their patients’ blood types, and that time spent tracking down blood wastes precious minutes for the most critical dogs. “One donor can make such a huge difference,” Mills tells us. “We can help save four other dogs with just one donation.”
One of the primary vehicles NAVBB uses to ensure a growing blood supply is the community-donor model. Take, for example, what Nicole Watson has done to aid NAVBB in Middleburg, Virginia. In late 2020, Watson learned of the dire need for canine blood from a dog trainer. “I was up there looking at her kennels and I saw a certificate for one of her dogs who had given a gallon of blood,” Watson says. “And I thought, ‘Well, we have so many people in this community with dogs, and this is fascinating… I wonder if we could get something organized.’”
Watson now has a donor network of more than 30 dog owners and hosts monthly blood drives, with each event bringing in more than a dozen canine donors. All the dogs in attendance are between one and seven years old, weigh over 50 pounds, and are current on vaccines, free of medications, and in good general health. The whole blood donation process takes 30 minutes and starts with a blood screening and general health assessment, followed by lots of cuddles and treats, and ends with the actual blood donation, which takes only two to three minutes.
Once the initial assessment is done, donors climb up onto a massage table with a designated vet technician who acts as a snuggler, keeping dogs calm, feeding them peanut butter and making the experience as comfortable as possible. Numbing cream dulls even the slight pinch of the needle, and within minutes, they are headed home.
Voss-Northrup says that Nikita and R.J. enjoy donating blood. “When the ladies come out, the dogs immediately jump out of the back of our SUV and run to them, tails a-wagging. They’re always excited to go in there, because they get pampered.” Whether it’s through community organizing, like Watson has done, or getting your own dogs involved, like Voss-Northrup, there’s a way every dog lover can help meet this incredible challenge. “Think about it from the standpoint that your dog might need this one day,” Voss-Northrup urges. “Get out there, learn about it, talk to your vet, find a local blood donation bank, see if your dog is a candidate and spread the word.”