Dawn Braumer calls it her dog’s “date with a vampire.”

That’s when Reuben, her 7-year-old black Labrador, goes to the UW Veterinary School’s Small Animal Hospital, has his neck shaved, and donates blood.

“A lot of people, they just don’t realize that our pets sometimes, unfortunately, need blood,” said Braumer who lives in Portage. “We really believe strongly in the program.”

Reuben is one of 12 dogs that, along with about 12 cats, make up the roster of donors for the hospital’s Small Animal Blood Bank.

“We see a lot of sick pets,” said Mandy Henderson, emergency service triage technician at the UW vet school hospital. “It’s really nice to be able to take blood from either client-owned, community-owned or staff pets. It also offers patients that are in immediate need an immediate solution.”

Officials say the blood donation program, which has been operating since early 2007, helps the vet school hospital avoid shipping costs of ordering blood, but also provides a way for the school to connect with the community. It also serves as an important teaching tool and as a backup to other area clinics.

“Blood banks that sell products to veterinarians (teaching hospitals, specialty centers, emergency room facilities, general practices) can experience limited availability or shortages,” Dr. Jonathan Bach, clinical assistant professor at UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, said in an e-mail. Bach said he began the program with the aim to have products, such as blood, available when they are needed.

“It can literally be the difference between life and death,” he said.

The hospital uses about 75 to 80 percent of its own blood for everything from trauma patients to surgery recovery.

In May, a cocker spaniel was brought to the UW facility, with an autoimmune disease where its body was destroying its own red blood cells. The facility used six to seven units of its stored, donated blood until the dog’s immune system was brought under control.

“We used all the blood products that we had on hand plus some,” Henderson said. “We thought he was probably not going to be with us the next morning. Ultimately he ended up doing very, very well.”

The blood bank started mostly with staff members offering their own pets for donations, but grew to include community members’ pets as well. The program is so popular that occasionally there’s a waiting list of owners who are interested in having their pet donate.

In addition to helping a good cause, donors also receive some medical benefits, including free preventative care, annual physicals and vaccines, said Dr. Julie Walker, clinical assistant professor of small animal emergency and critical care at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.

Deciding to donate

But before you sign up Fido or Fluffy, here are some things to consider.

“Usually the best candidates are dogs that have no issues with body handling at all,” Henderson said. “A lot of time the owner can make that judgment at home.”

Before donating, dogs and cats have their blood tested and are put through a rigorous screening process, which considers the animals’ temperament. For dogs, officials also determine if they will lay on their side or are scared of the clippers used to shave the area where the blood is drawn.

“Cats do get sedated for their donations, but dogs don’t usually need to be,” Henderson said. “We try to use (sedative) doses that allow them to recover relatively quickly.”

Dogs and cats that travel well in cars and are OK with new surroundings also tend to be good candidates, said Henderson, who has two cats that donate. And once at the vet school “they do get treated pretty well while they’re here,” she said. The animals get a private room, lots of attention and canned food when they wake up.

“My kitties do very well with it,” she said.

Dogs can donate every four weeks and cats every six. Dogs donate about 450 milliliters of blood and cats about 60 milliliters. One unit of blood equals about 300 milliliters once the blood is processed.

The blood is drawn by placing a catheter in the animal’s jugular to ensure access directly to the vein, Henderson said.

“It’s definitely an impressive thing,” she said of the animals that donate. “Amazingly, there are a fair number of dogs that are just so trusting of us.”

The blood draws typically take between 20 and 30 minutes. The animals then remain in critical care to make sure there aren’t complications. The whole process takes between four and six hours.

For the most part, the donors’ owners live in the Madison area and the facility can contact them for blood on an as-needed basis, rather than ordering it from a blood bank three days in advance, Walker said.

“A lot of our blood donors are accessible on an emergency basis too,” Walker said. “A certain percentage of them are willing to come in on weekend or nighttime basis. That is something that is very, very beneficial for our recipients.”

Pet blood banks
becoming more common

Walker said it’s becoming more common for vet schools to operate their own blood banks. And in Madison, at least two other facilities operate a dog and cat blood donation program: Madison Veterinary Specialist and Veterinary Emergency Service.

“Being a 24-hour emergency and specialty hospital, we’re likely to encounter (situations) that are going to need (blood) more than a day practice,” said Sue Lakin, Madison Veterinary Specialist’s senior veterinary technician, who said they work with between 10 and 20 dog donors. “We usually always try to keep one or two units on hand,” she said.

From 2008 to 2013 the UW vet school blood bank averaged 194 units of donated blood per year. In addition, “our hospital and critical care unit have been busier the past two years,” Bach said. “My best guess is we will be up about 25 percent for 2013 and 2014.”

Dogs usually remain with the UW program until they are about 8 years old, then they retire “so we’re not putting any strain on their body,” Walker said.