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They’re typical blood donors — except their tails are wagging

The Canadian Animal Blood Bank is a Manitoba initiative that, 
like its human equivalent, is a lifesaver for those in need

Canine blood donors don’t seem to mind — maybe it’s because of the treats.  Photo: Brady Knight

Canine blood donors don’t seem to mind — maybe it’s because of the treats.  Photo: Brady Knight

Byron doesn’t stop smiling.

From the minute he rushes into the exam room of the Brandon Hills Veterinary Clinic and scrambles up onto the table, to when he makes a mad dash for the door 10 minutes later, there is a permanent grin on his face, his tail happily wagging behind him.

It’s a good day — he’s just given blood.

Much like humans, animals in veterinary care occasionally require blood products, which can be expensive and in many isolated communities, difficult to obtain. Enter the Canadian Animal Blood Bank — the only not-for-profit blood bank for animals in the country.

The blood-donation process for our canine companions is similar to the human version — donors are first tested and the same amount, about 400 to 450 millilitres, are withdrawn. Of course, a bit of shaving is usually required, and since dogs don’t get light headed, a vacuum pump can be used to reduce the collection time to two to five minutes, versus 20 for humans.

Its origins date back to 1994 when Manitoba veterinarian Ken Mould was at a lecture in Ontario and the speaker challenged those in attendance to create their own blood bank, instead of continuing to buy commercial products. Mould took this challenge to heart and partnered with Red River College to establish the Manitoba Animal Blood Bank in 1996.

The response was immediate.

“The demand of owners wanting their pets to participate outgrew the demand of blood products,” says Beth Knight, the laboratory’s director.

By 1998, with the overwhelming support for the program, they changed their name to the Canadian Animal Blood Bank, and began sharing blood products with emergency clinics within Canada. They also act as a distribution centre for the blood products.

In 2001, the animal health program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton formed a satellite collection site and began training animal health technology students.

“By 2007 we had expanded from only collecting at Red River College to at veterinary clinics,” says Knight. “Now it’s totally shifted to where we’re nearly on the road all the time, and only have one collection a month at Red River.”

Meanwhile, in the front of the clinic, a very excited Ty is waiting his turn to donate. His owner, Miranda Cochrane, says the best part for them is giving back.

“He’s a rescue himself, so he’s helping other ones that need help,” she says.

At the end of the day, the units collected are transported back to Winnipeg to be processed. Knight compares this to separating milk — the blood is put into a centrifuge which splits the unit into plasma and red blood cells.

“Putting the bag of blood into a centrifuge forces the separation that might take eight to 12 hours to do,” says Knight. “I can do it in eight minutes instead.”

The plasma is frozen, and can be stored for up to two years. The red blood cells are more fragile, and are kept in a refrigerator for up to 42 days. The donated blood has many uses.

“It all depends on what kind of situation the dog is in,” says Gina Marsh, a registered animal health technologist who travels with Knight to local veterinarian offices across southern Manitoba.

The red blood cells could be used for transfusions after a collision with a vehicle, while the plasma can be employed in treating parvovirus, an extremely contagious virus in dogs, to which young puppies are exceptionally susceptible.

Back on the table, Byron is being showered in praise, along with a few well-deserved treats, after completing his fourth donation. He is one of 18 dogs that came through the doors of the Brandon Hills Veterinary Clinic that day.

Most had donated before, including Kallie, who belongs to a staff member at the clinic and has given blood 11 times.

But new donors are always welcome, including Trigger, who came by to give blood for the first time. While both dog and owner came in with a bit of uncertainty, they walked out into the sunshine a short time later with Trigger happily sporting a new bandana marking his first donation.

If this is something you and your canine would be interested in, there are a few things to keep in mind. The younger the dog, the better. Ideally, dogs begin donating between the ages of one and eight, and can continue until they are 10 years old. They must be in good health, and weigh at least 50 pounds. Your pet should be recommended by a vet. You can either ask your vet or call the blood bank (204-632-2586) to arrange for a referral. Many clinics are also constantly on the lookout for emergency donors, when there is an immediate need for blood. Mobile clinics are regularly held across the province, including places such as Oakbank, Stonewall, Selkirk, and Brandon, in addition to numerous locations in Winnipeg.

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