Damien Trotto, Dr. Kimberly Hammer, Dawn Sheridan, NorthStar marketing director Phil Barnes and Caius Jameson stand inside NorthStar Vets’ Robbinsville facility. (Staff photo by Samantha Sciarrotta.)
Dawn Sheridan wanted to find a way for her Bernese Mountain Dog, Caius Jameson, to give back to other dogs in need. Dogs don’t have long lives, she said—why not try to do some good deeds? After some searching, she learned that the 125-pound dog was a perfect fit for one task in particular: blood donation.

NorthStar Vets is home to a pet blood bank, which Kimberly Hammer—NorthStar doctor and blood bank medical adviser—said has become crucial to the hospital.

Universities usually have their own blood banks, while commercial blood banks are able to ship blood to larger veterinary hospitals like NorthStar as well as smaller clinics all across the country. But in some cases, pets can’t afford to wait for the blood to get shipped, and so the Robbinsville facility started its blood bank in 2010.

“Because we have such a high volume and very critical patients who come in here, we felt it would be better if we had a source of blood products that we could have more immediately, as opposed to calling a blood bank and having them ship blood products,” Hammer said. “We can say, ‘You need blood right now? We can give it to you right now.’”

When Sheridan, a Robbinsville resident, learned about the program, she signed Caius Jameson up right away—and started spreading the word to other pet owners.

“It’s one of those things where you ask yourself, ‘Where does it come from?’ It doesn’t just magically appear,” she said. “When I heard about it, especially because it’s close, it’s one of the things that I talk to a lot of people about. A lot of people don’t know. They think you had to drive to, like, Philadelphia.”

The summer tends to be busier at the hospital than other times of year, Hammer said, so NorthStar is using (and in need of) more blood than normal. But the need for blood exists year-round.

The majority of the blood bank’s stock comes from dogs and cats, though ferrets and rabbits sometimes donate, too. Each species has its own set of blood types, like humans, and the recipient’s type is matched up with a donor’s. Typing is part of the screening process, Hammer said.

Determining overall health is an important part of the process, as well. First, owners answer a questionnaire, including information about the pet’s lifestyle and medications. Animals need to be at least certain weight—50 lbs. for dogs and 10 lbs. for lean-bodied, indoor-only cats—and between one and eight years old. If they meet all the criteria, a veterinarian examines the pet. Then, blood work is done to determine whether or not the donor carries any infectious diseases or anything else that might be able to be transmitted to a recipient. Pets can donate blood as often as every seven weeks.

The donation process takes 10-20 minutes. Once the blood is received, it gets separated into components: red blood cells and plasma. Dogs and cats with liver or bleeding issues are common plasma recipients, as well as pets who accidentally eat rat poison—plasma is an antidote. Red blood cells are used with patients who are bleeding from a trauma or surgery, or who have immune problems. But as veterinary technology becomes more cutting-edge, the need for blood becomes more dire.

“There’s always been a need [for blood], but I think as veterinary medicine is becoming more advanced, and as we’re able to provide more advanced services and more advanced care for our patients, we see a greater need for it,” Hammer said. “With this product, we can save a life, as opposed to years ago, when it wasn’t available, when we didn’t have facilities like ours or universities that could provide that advanced care.”

NorthStar marketing director Phil Barnes added that pet owners’ relationships with their animals has changed, too, and that also has an effect on the need for blood. Barnes said the need for cat blood is slightly greater. NorthStar Vets hosts human-animal blood drives once or twice a year, where pets can get screened while their owners donate blood.

“A generation ago, pets just lived in the house,” he said. “Now, they’re like your children. That shift, in perspective, has allowed veterinary medicine to grow to meet that new demand.”

Sheridan agreed.

“He’s like my child,” she said. “you never want to experience where they don’t have something, or they’re short of something. When you take your child to a hospital, you hope that they have the doctor to take care of him, or they can stabilize him.”

When Sheridan decided to make Caius Jameson a donor, she had a neighborhood friend—a 14-pound Cavalier King Charles Spaniel—in mind. She is too small to donate, but if somewhere down the line Caius’s blood could help her, he will have done his part.

“I just don’t ever want someone who has a little dog that doesn’t have the same ability to be treated as he would be able to,” Sheridan said. “I look at it as if he can give back, if he’s going to save another little dog’s life, then that’s what he’s basically here for. We do it as humans. Why not the dogs?”

For more information on blood drives, donation and more, visit northstarvets.com/blood-bank. To take the blood donor pet screening survey, visit northstarvets.com/blood-bank-screening.