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America is facing a shortage of dog blood. If Fido actually catches that car he's been chasing or Fluffy contracts a life-threatening disease, dogs, like their people, sometimes need blood transfusions. And while there is no Red Cross for dogs, NPR's Christopher Connelly reports there are a handful of canine blood banks.
CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: In a lot of ways, a blood bank for dogs is like a blood bank for people. Donors are screened for blood-borne diseases, the blood has to be typed, and there just never seems to be enough. But that's where the similarities stop.
REBECCA PEARCE: Hi. Ooh, sneezing? Ooh, thank you for the kisses and the sneeze. That's a good boy.
CONNELLY: Phlebotomist Rebecca Pearce is part of a two-woman team from Blue Ridge Veterinary Blood Bank in Virginia. Her counterpart is Diane Garcia.
DIANE GARCIA: I'm the dog holder. And...
CONNELLY: You're a dog holder?
GARCIA: I'm a dog holder. What I do is I lay down on the table with the dog, and I snuggle.
CONNELLY: Garcia and Pearce make rounds to a couple dozen sites in the area to draw blood from regular volunteer dog donors. This morning, they're at home base in a sunny exam room at the Blue Ridge clinic.
GARCIA: Hey, Rupert.
CONNELLY: Rupert is up first today. He's a docile black mutt with a lion cut. Pearce gives him a quick checkup, and Garcia coaxes him onto the table, plying him with treats and peanut butter.
GARCIA: Are you ready? Oh, we got to pick you up. Come on. Up you go.
CONNELLY: Garcia settles in, spooning Rupert so he stays relaxed and still.
GARCIA: All right. Little buzz, buzz.
CONNELLY: Pearce shaves a patch of hair on his neck. Then quietly, gently, she inserts a small needle into his jugular vein. Rupert hardly seems to notice. A couple minutes and several treats later, she's bagged about a half a pint of blood.
GARCIA: You're OK.
PEARCE: Oh, he's a good boy.
CONNELLY: Canine blood banking pretty much owes its start to one woman.
DR. JEAN DODDS: My name is Dr. Jean Dodds.
CONNELLY: Dodds runs a nonprofit canine blood bank and greyhound rescue in Southern California. Early in her career, she worked with animals with bleeding diseases like hemophilia. And though she's a veterinarian, Dodds ran New York state's human blood program in the early 1980s.
DODDS: I realized that we needed to have something like it for veterinary medicine.
CONNELLY: So she helped researchers get funding to advance the science.
DODDS: Well, first, we had to teach the whole process of what blood types were, what crossmatching was, how to prepare blood in components as opposed to whole blood. In other words, follow exactly what is done with the Red Cross, for example.
CONNELLY: Before, when a dog needed a transfusion, vets had to call someone up who had a big dog, and that still happens today. But Dodds says having the blood broken down is better. Red blood cells can be used for treating trauma as well as some cancers and autoimmune diseases.
DODDS: Plasma, on the other hand, the antibodies in plasma is very, very helpful to treat infectious diseases, like parvovirus disease, which is so prevalent in dogs.
CONNELLY: Twenty years after Dodds founded the first commercial canine blood bank, she says demand has grown, and it always, always exceeds supplies.
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CONNELLY: At the Blue Ridge blood bank, Jocelyn Pratt says this time of year, blood supplies run low. She pulls open the door of an industrial fridge where they store packed red blood cells ready to be mailed out.
JOCELYN PRATT: This is usually completely full. Those are usually completely full. And they're pretty slim pickens right now.
CONNELLY: Pratt ships about 150 units of blood and plasma every week to veterinarians across the country. The units cost upwards of 100 bucks. But Pratt says no one runs blood banks to get rich.
PRATT: The staff members, the human-grade blood collection bags and the guys behind the scenes back here who process it, you know, the shipping's very expensive, gasoline's expensive and Styrofoam coolers are expensive.
CONNELLY: But the blood itself, that's free from a faithful core of volunteer dogs and their owners. Carrie Smalser drives an hour to bring her dogs in for their regularly scheduled donations.
CARRIE SMALSER: I deal with lost dog and cat rescue. I'm a foster for them and seen how many puppies and dogs can go through parvo.
CONNELLY: There are just a few blood banks that ship nationally, and a lot of veterinary schools do their own blood banking, which raises the inevitable question: what about cats? Feline blood banks do exist. But as any cat owner can tell you, cats are much more complicated.
Christopher Connelly, NPR News.
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