A cat owner who had just given blood in a local blood drive recently asked me if blood transfusions were possible in cats. The short answer is: absolutely!
My cat Weezle was a stray, found on the streets of Manhattan by a good Samaritan, 12 years ago. She had sustained a tremendous amount of trauma and blood loss. A client sitting in the waiting room, saw this poor stray being rushed in, and offered to have her kitty donate blood. That act of kindness saved Weezle's life. And she is still here to recount her story!
Coursing through our bodies at warp speed, “blood” is made up of red cells (that carry oxygen), white cells (that maintain immune defenses), platelets (that plug up the leaks), and plasma (proteins and nutrients), that are all essential to maintaining a healthy body. When we lose blood, the fastest way to replenish it is through a transfusion from a donor.
The most common reasons why a cat may need a blood transfusion are: anemia (loss of red blood cells, from bleeding, trauma or disease), clotting disorders (causing bleeding), or deficiencies of some components in the plasma.
There are blood banks located throughout the country that can supply feline blood or blood components. In addition, some veterinary referral centers maintain a small supply of blood. But cat blood has a relatively short shelf life, and it can be expensive to stock. As a result, most veterinary hospitals do not keep a supply of blood on hand. In a true emergency, however, the best source of blood is fresh from a local donor. That’s where you and your kitty come in!
The ideal kitty blood donor possesses the following qualities:
- Clinically healthy, fully vaccinated, indoor kitty, weighing at least 10 lbs
- Tested negative for Feline Leukemia, Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, and Mycoplasma hemofelis
- Red blood cell volume in top half of the “normal” range
- Known blood type
- Good temperament, and ability to be given a sedative for blood donation
- Available on short notice for an emergency donation
Once all of the pre-screening requirements are met, the donor kitty is given a little sedation, which allows him to relax throughout the procedure without becoming anxious. Most donors can give a minimum of 50cc of blood (about 3 tablespoons), which is collected into a special bag or syringe, and then given to the recipient. Donors are usually given some intravenous fluids after giving blood, and once they wake up, are treated like royalty for the gift they have given! Donors can safely donate blood every 4 to 6 weeks. Some veterinary hospitals will offer incentives to owners willing to have their cat be on a “donor list” for kitties in need of a life-saving transfusion.
For cats that require a blood transfusion, the most important step is blood typing. Cats have 3 major blood types: A, B, and AB. Your cat’s blood type can be easily determined by your veterinarian, either with a special “quick test” kit, or by sending a sample to the lab. The reason blood typing is ESSENTIAL before a recipient can receive a transfusion, is that cats of one blood type contain natural antibodies to the red blood cells of cats with the other type. Mixing blood types can result in a rapidly fatal reaction! (Dogs, on the other hand, do not possess large amounts of natural antibodies to other blood types, and can therefore often have a “first transfusion” in an emergency without severe consequences).
Although nothing replaces the actual test for your cat’s blood type, here is a general breakdown of feline blood type distributions in the United States:
- Domestic shorthair and domestic longhair: >95% are TYPE A
- Purebred Siamese, Burmese, Tonkinese, Russian Blue, American Shorthair, Oriental Shorthair : 100% are TYPE A
- Maine Coon, Norwegian Forest: up to 10% are TYPE B
- Abyssinian, Birman, Persian, Somali, Sphinx, Scottish Fold: up to 20% are TYPE B
- British shorthair, Cornish Rex, Devon Rex, exotic cats: up to 45% are TYPE B
- Type AB has been observed in some domestic shorthairs and breeds with Type B
The successful use of blood transfusions in cats has increased dramatically in recent years. It can literally save your cat’s life. And your cat can literally save a life by donating. I would strongly encourage you to speak with your vet about having your kitty join their Donor List. I know Weezle would agree!