Toby walks tall even by Great Dane standards. He towers above pal Lola. Yet both help give life to others. They are donor dogs. Blood hounds.
And their blood is just as badly needed by four legged patients as the human blood groups are required by the rest of us.
Toby and Lola are on call to St Annes vet Siuna Reid, senior veterinary surgeon at The Veterinary Health Centre, Greenways, St Annes .
The emergency after hours service available there looks after all creatures great and small for eight vets.
Giving blood for potentially life saving transfusions doesn’t hurt although Toby “ shakes like a leaf” through the process says owner Fiona Armstrong.
“He’s made such a fuss of he enjoys the occasion. He knows he’s doing something special.”
The real rewards - apart from (as with people) the inevitable biscuits - come when ailing animals receive transfusions needed.
Karen Jefferson’s springer spaniel Ernie (a female) deteriorated rapidly as a result of an auto immune disorder. “It was obvious something was horribly wrong,” says Karen. “She had to have three blood transfusions after collapsing. I carried her to the vet. Ernie just flopped on the table. I was warned to expect the worse and kissed her but after a good few weeks of ups and downs I now have an happy and apparently healthy dog again.
“I knew she needed blood but had no idea where it was going to come from. I didn’t know there were blood donor dogs.
“But if it wasn’t for these donor dogs we would have lost our family pet and she means the world to us.
“The condition she had meant she was fighting off her own red blood cells. Ernie was dying in front of us.
“The cost is worth it. There’s no cut off point when your dog is a member of your family.”
TVHC practice manager Judith Riggs says the number of dogs requiring transfusions is increasing - and there aren’t enough donor dogs.
Judith adds: “Over the last few years we have established a data bank of potential canine donors called on in emergencies to help dogs in need.
“There is strict criteria to meet before a dog can be considered and this limits the number of suitable donors.”
In a bid to boost numbers the team invited practices using the emergency service to urge pet owners to get involved.
The emergency veterinary service is a non profit service, which provides out of hours cover from 6.30pm to 8.30am for Alpha Vets, Robert Jones, Spen Corner Veterinary Centre, The Mount Veterinary Practice, Myerscough Vet Group (St Annes), Mere Road Veterinary Clinic, David Wadsworth Veterinary Surgeons and The Veterinary Health Centre itself.
Vet Siuna explains: “We’ve been running the emergency service for eight years and it’s just grown in that time - both in terms of practices involved and people using it.
“People pay for treatment, and a lot as it’s a premium service, but we don’t make a profit. It’s run like a co-operative, members have an equal say, agree what is fair to charge, and it’s stopped vets worrying they may lose their clients out of hours to others.
“But with more animals coming in we need more blood.
“Dogs have about seven or eight blood groups, negative and positive. We have 15 donors but you can only take blood once a month as it takes three weeks to regenerate - and you don’t want to do it too often.
“Dogs wear a tag to say they have given or received blood.”
Donor dogs should be one to eight years old, weigh over 25k, be fit and healthy, fully vaccinated, have a good temperament, have never travelled abroad and, if female, have never had a litter.
Initial blood samples determine blood type and the dog’s suitability is assessed before they go onto the donor database. They get a £30 voucher from the centre each time they donate blood, along with a medi-warning bone shaped disc.
Siuna adds: “Some need light sedation but most breeze through it. They are solid dependable animals. Owners make a great commitment - we may need to call them during the night or unsociable hours in cases of emergency.”
While road traffic accidents top the list of pet dreads, auto immune disorders of the type requiring regular transfusions are a real drain on the system.
One of Siuna’s emergencies involved the collapse at 11pm of a German Shepherd with a splenic tumour. “The tumour had burst so the dog was bleeding to death. We took out the spleen to save the dog’s life but needed blood.”
The bank of dogs provides matches across the major blood groups. Fortunately, the first transfusion doesn’t have to be a match for most dogs. “The blood types are more loosely grouped than in humans,” says Siuna. “If you gave O negative blood to an A positive person you could get a massive reaction. In dogs there’s not the same reaction. We still need to have two or three donors for two or three pints of blood.
“You can take 10 per cent of a healthy big dog’s weight in blood. On average it’s around 100ml. We would choose three dogs typed as negative or positive, DEA (dog erythrocyte antigen ) negative or positive in dog groups. We harvest the blood and can store it for up to a month but no longer as we would need expensive licences and other things in order to become a blood bank proper - which would push the price of the transfusions up to hundreds of pounds.
“We need the blood as and when. We can’t wait a day as the dog could be dead by then.
“And transfusions don’t always save the dog. You have to remember the average age of red blood cells in a dog is three weeks. They don’t all last that long. At the very least you hope for a reprieve, to give the dog long enough to start replenishing its own blood cells.”
For many procedures a transfusion is a clinical necessity. But with advances in veterinary medicine, increasingly complex operations can also be carried out too. And while people can rely on the National Blood Tranfusion Service - always on the look for more donors itself - vets have to rely on their own resources or utilise animal blood registers and national banks.
Siuna recalls trying to save a beautiful German Shepherd called Bigsby who had been adopted and brought home from Bulgaria. “He had ehrlichia, bacteria that infect and live within white blood cells, driven by a parasite that affects the bone marrow.
“Bigsy went through every blood donor dog we had. In the end we just ran out before we could control it - limited by the number of dogs we had.”
Joining the brigade of emergency “blood hounds” are rescue greyhounds Milo and Ellie - owned by Anna-Marie and Chris Farrow.
Anna-Marie says: “We can be called upon at any time but don’t see it as an inconvenience as the centre would be there for us if our dogs had problems.
“Greyhounds have the most red blood cells of any dog so are really useful to have on call.
“We see it as a way of giving something back.”