One Life at a Time

Inside Houston's First Animal Blood Bank

The hospital keeps blood, plasma and red blood cells in stock to aid animals suffering from trauma, anemia, heatstroke and rat-bait poisoning.

By Marianella Orlando April 28, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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"I'm getting a cookie after this, right?"

Image: Shutterstock

It’s a Monday morning, and Elvis, a year-old English Mastiff with a belly full of snacks, is lying on a table at the vet. A veterinary technician lightly sedates him, then shaves the side of his neck and inserts a needle into his vein. The 130-pound dog seems to relax, occasionally letting out a light snore. As the vet rubs his head, he pays no attention to the blood flowing into a plastic transfer bag. Why would he? The guy’s an old pro. It’s the second time in two months he’s donated blood.

The North Houston Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Hospital (NHVS) in Willowbrook launched the first animal blood bank in Houston last November, with the goal of providing faster aid to cats and dogs in need of transfusions throughout the city—at NHVS-affiliated clinics and beyond—and ceasing to rely on an out-of-state supplier. The hospital keeps blood, plasma and red blood cells in stock to aid animals suffering from trauma, anemia, heatstroke and rat-bait poisoning.

“Typically it takes seven to ten days to order blood,” says Talar Everett, a veterinary technician who also serves as the blood bank coordinator at NHVS. “Now it’s accessible 24 hours, with everything they need. They can come purchase the blood and be able to save their patient’s life.”

NHVS is only the second animal blood bank in Texas (the first is the Small Animal Hospital at Texas A&M). Thirty to forty dogs and four cats participate in the program, which hosted its first blood drive in February. “A lot of people are coming in and saying, ‘I had no idea that such a thing would ever exist,’” says Dr. Natalie Lang, NHVS’s emergency clinician. “People are really surprised by it.”

Right now, the participants are a mix of employee pets and dogs from K9 Officers, Inc. and the Houston K9 Academy. But organizers also want to get pet owners from the community bringing their animals in, with the ultimate goal of signing up 150 donors. “We want to be able to provide blood to our own clinics and those around us,” says Everett, “so we don’t have to ever worry of there being a shortage.”

What’s in it for the pets (and their owners)? Free tests worth thousands, for one: Candidates are screened prior to donating, with their blood tested for infectious diseases, heartworms, thyroid issues and Von Willebrand disease, to name a few. Animals who have provided six donations also become eligible for free blood, either for themselves or another pet in their household.

To be considered, pets must be one to eight years old, meet weight requirements (10 pounds for cats, 50 for dogs), be neutered or spayed, with proper vaccinations, and have no record of prior blood transfusions. The most important qualification, however, is the right blood type: type A or B for cats, and DEA negative for dogs, which is what Elvis has.

Blanca Speight, Elvis’s owner and a surgery technician at the hospital, was one of the first to sign up for the program. “I see how hard it is to get blood, especially with the negative,” says Speight. “You’re donating to save someone else’s family member.”

Ed. note: An earlier version of this article misidentified K9 Officers, Inc. as K9s for Cops. We regret the error and a correction has been made.

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