Giving blood is a life saving good deed that most of us know about and can do if our health allows. Indeed often a lot of us willingly put time aside to regularly provide a donation of blood safe in the knowledge that it could be crucial to someone’s life. But did you know that our dogs can also give blood, and by the same token, there are often dogs in veterinary practice that rely on a vital donation to save their lives if they lose a lot of blood or become life threateningly anaemic.
Lola the 11 year old Labrador was one such dog that became so unwell she required not one, but two transfusions of donated blood in order to pull through from her serious medical condition.
When Lola became lethargic over a weekend, her owners made a prompt Monday morning appointment to get her checked over. After an initial examination, the cause of her lethargy and reluctance to eat wasn’t immediately apparent, so tests were required to investigate further at the veterinary practice. After a blood test, it became clear that Lola was anaemic – this meant that she had a lower number than required of red blood cells in her bloodstream. Red blood cells carry oxygen around the body, so a persisting and worsening anaemia can be life threatening. Not only this, but her platelet cells in her circulation were very low indeed. These cells help form a clot and stop the body from spontaneously bleeding – therefore this represented the cause of her anaemia.
What wasn’t certain was why her platelet numbers were so low – with the pattern of everything else in her tests and her examination, it seemed to be suggested that her body was destroying her own platelets in an immune-mediated, or autoimmune, attack. This condition can occur sometimes in dogs, and is known as Immune-Mediated Thrombocytopaenia (IMTP). This can occur for no determined reason, known as a primary condition, or may be secondary, to medications or unfortunately more commonly in older dogs like Lola – an underlying cancer. Tests were then undertaken that day to establish if there was any obvious sign of cancer in her body – but X-rays of her chest and ultrasound scans of her abdomen came back all clear.
Lola was then discharged on some treatment for the primary condition of IMTP with high dose steroids, to act as immunosuppressants and stop the body’s immune system from destroying her platelets. However, overnight and into the following morning, Lola’s condition deteriorated and she started vomiting blood and suffering from severe bloody diarrhoea. The low platelet numbers in her body meant she was losing lots of blood from her stomach and intestine lining before the steroids had a chance to work. Not only was she now even more lethargic but she was refusing to eat and was becoming dangerously dehydrated. At this point Lola’s owners faced the first of many huge decisions – as to whether they should escalate her treatment or say goodbye to her as she might never respond to treatment at this point.
Lola’s owners chose to do what they could for her, so she was hospitalised on an intravenous drip, with a higher dose of steroid, an additional immunosuppressant and strong medication to control nausea, sickness and diarrhoea. Despite responding partially to some of these treatments, her platelet numbers were still very low and her anaemia continued to worsen as the amount of red blood cells in her body were dropping following her continued bleeding. Lola’s packed cell volume (PCV) and haematocrit – a measure of anaemia – then dropped over the next few days to a very worrying 10% figure in her bloodstream – where a healthy dog would have a reading of at least 35%.
At this stage Lola’s owners faced their next huge decision, whether to either give up on her treatment and admit defeat, or consent to the only option that could save her life at this point – a blood transfusion. After much discussion with the family, Lola’s owners wanted to give her every chance and pressed ahead with the decision to give her a blood transfusion at the practice. Fortunately, at short notice another very kind owner’s Labrador was on hand to provide a donation of blood for Lola. The lovely 3 year old Lily stepped up, and under a slight sedation was brave enough to provide 500ml of her blood in the early afternoon, which was transfused into Lola’s circulation later that evening. Not all dogs can donate blood – they must be aged between 2 and 8 years old, weigh more than 25kg, have no history of foreign travel and be on no long term medication – fortunately Lily fitted into all these categories.
Lola did improve following this, as she had more blood cells available to her body, but she still needed her platelet numbers to increase so that she could stabilise her condition and not continue to bleed. An extra medication was given to boost these numbers, but she wasn’t quite turning the corner as everyone would like, and at the end of the week with her PCV still only at 14% a final decision was needed from Lola’s owners – to undergo a second transfusion to help her kick on and finally recover. Feeling hopeful, Lola’s owners approved a second transfusion. As the transfusions were so close together, the donated blood and her blood did not need to be blood-typed, but she was typed at this point in case of any further events in the future. This time, there was no donor dog available, so Lola had to rely on some stored blood cells courtesy of the Pet Blood Bank, kept close by at a local veterinary hospital.
After this transfusion was received, Lola did actually and finally pick up, albeit slowly, to everyone’s relief, and she was able to be discharged from the practice after over a week of hospitalisation to recuperate at home. Her platelet numbers were good at this stage, and her red blood cells were slowly rising as she started to respond to all of her treatments. At time of writing, Lola continues to undergo treatment and is still lethargic, but is enjoying life again and is being weaned off her medications. Lola and her very dedicated owners not only are grateful to the kind actions of Lily the donor dog, but also to the services of the Pet Blood Bank – and wish to raise awareness of this organisation and the life saving job that blood donating dogs can perform. If you think your dog could act as a donor dog, please contact your local veterinary practice.
- Vet Greg
Lola's story showcases the remarkable impact of blood donation in the world of veterinary medicine. The willingness of canine donors, like the brave Lily, and the valuable resources provided by organizations such as the Pet Blood Bank can make all the difference between life and death for beloved pets like Lola. As awareness grows about the importance of blood donors, more dogs may have a chance at a second chance at life. If you believe your dog could become a life-saving hero, reach out to your local veterinary practice to learn how your furry companion can make a difference in the lives of others.
Pet Blood Bank: the official website of the Pet Blood Bank, find more information about their services, blood donation, and how to get involved.
Canine Blood Donation Criteria: The criteria for dogs to become blood donors
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