In the middle of the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic this year, Ravindra D had to deal with an emergency of a different kind. His German Shepherd, Jimmy, had caught tick fever and needed a blood transfusion to regain his health.
His vet asked him to arrange blood. The Bengaluru resident looked up blood banks in the city, but found none. With nowhere else to go, he connected with a few friends who were willing to get their dogs along, in order to donate blood. They eventually found a match for him and the procedure was smooth there on. However, there soon arose a need for another transfusion. This time around, Jimmy succumbed to his illness after a delay in locating a donor.
India has an estimated pet population of around 29 million; most of that number comprises dogs. The food product industry alone accounts for about ₹8,000 crore annually, while grooming and healthcare services are also on the rise. But each time there is a need for blood, pet parents are sent scampering due to a lack of resources.
Anushka Iyer too found herself in a similar situation with her German Shepherd, Rico, who also caught tick fever. But things were marginally easier for the Pune-based founder and CEO of Wiggles.in, a pet healthcare company. She could first source blood from another one of her dogs and the next time around, she reached out to her network for a suitable donor.
“I managed to get blood in time, but only because I am a part of the industry. It got me thinking about how difficult the process is for other pet parents who are in a similar situation,” she says.
Iyer decided to address the issue. She first conducted a survey earlier this year to understand how many were aware of blood donation for pets and the procedures around it.
“We spoke to around 500 pet parents and the results were startling. Less than 2% had ever donated or received blood. And over 80% didn’t know that blood donation (for pets) was a thing. It’s when I realised that nobody had really spoken about this,” Iyer says.
Blood donation in dogs entails similar criteria such as that in humans. Dr Pradip Chaudhari, a veterinarian based out of Kharghar in Navi Mumbai, lists a few: the donor should not be underweight or have suffered a viral infection in the last three month; must maintain the right haemoglobin level; must not be on medication and should not have received immunisation in the last three months. Once these conditions are satisfied, a cross matching procedure is carried out between the donor and recipient to check for the blood type. Once a suitable match is found, blood is drawn from the donor and brought to the recipient dog for transfusion.
“The blood system in dogs is very complex, not as simple as humans. The first transfusion is given from breed to breed. But the second time, it may cause some kind of reaction and result in a fatal or life threatening situation, so matching the blood types is crucial during blood transfusion. It isn’t easy to get a healthy volunteer. Besides, a lot of people also have the misconception that their dog may get weaker due to this procedure,” Chaudhari says.
The non-availability of collection bags for donors is another issue. Most times, these are borrowed from human blood banks. Then, there are geographical distances to contend with, where a lot of effort goes into locating a donor in the vicinity.
Mumbai-based Megha Rushabh Shah, a pet parent from Mumbai, decided to register her mixed breed indie, Brownie, in spite of a hip issue that he’s been suffering.
“I think it’s karma and one day when I’m in need, hopefully someone comes forward and donates blood. That said, I do face some challenges. My dog’s condition makes it difficult to take him where there’s a need. Secondly, the blood bag is only handed out to the recipient, so even if I draw blood at the local vet, transportation becomes a problem,” says Shah.
To cater to this demand, there are a number of unethical practices prevalent today. One pet parent talks about how he approached a breeder when in need of blood for his dog. But the breeder was willing to bring a dog only in return for some money. Another mentions how strays are kept as backup donors, often in unhygienic conditions.
High operational costs have resulted in blood banks shutting down in the past. Only a handful of them exist across the country today. In 2019, Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (GADVASU) in Ludhiana started their own blood bank to cater to the 20,000-odd cases of blood transfusion that they get annually.
“In most cases, if the transfusion isn’t carried out on the same day, the animal is going to die. With an in-house facility, we have been able to save many lives of critically ill patients,” says Dr Shukriti Sharma of GADVASU.
What they’ve also been able to do with the blood is carry out component separation to cater to each specific case. While dog blood usually has a shelf life of upto 28 days, the separated plasma can be stored for 2-3 years.
“Most in the field conduct whole blood transfusion, where blood is taken from a donor and transferred to a sick dog. What we do is separate platelets, plasma and red blood cells, and then carry out need-based transfusion. Through this, we can optimally utilise blood by taking it from a donor and giving it to three different sick dogs based on their needs,” Sharma says.
A few individuals too are doing their bit to address the issue. When Devanshi Shah lost her Havanese, Hazel, under similar circumstances a few years ago, she launched her own enterprise Petkonnect, a community-based online service provider in April last year. They would initially send out donor requirements to all their customers, but they soon realised that while a number of folks would show interest initially, few would show up when it came down to actually donating blood. She is now compiling a database of willing donors, who are aware of the entire procedure, while enlightening others about it through social media campaigns.
“There is this complete lack of awareness among pet parents when it comes to blood donation. They are worried about something happening to their dog or if it makes sense to put needles in their pets. This needs to be addressed,” Shah says.
Iyer too launched the Bonded by Blood initiative in September, through which they spread awareness about the issue, enlist donors and recipients, and connect the two when the need arises. Their in-house vets are also attempting to create blood bags, which will increase the shelf life of blood that is collected from donors.
“Rico is now a healthy boy and has donated blood to another German Shepherd who had tick fever. A dog who’s gone through tick fever develops antigens in the body. When transfusion is carried out in another dog that is suffering, it makes healing faster. That’s just another fact that people don’t know of,” Iyer says.