In their scramble to save furry patients, veterinarians have bled their own pets, ordered blood flown overnight from banks in California and Virginia, made midnight calls to people who have volunteered their pets as emergency donors, and even illegally kept animals caged in a back room.
Such drastic efforts may soon be unnecessary in Maryland, provided your pet is a dog, cat or ferret -- and you don't mind paying $55 or more for a unit of animal plasma.
A private animal blood bank -- the first large-scale operation out side California -- is to open in two weeks in Annapolis. It will supply dog, cat and ferret blood to veterinarians in five states and Washington.
The Eastern Veterinary Blood Bank, run by veterinarian Ann Schneider, will help fill a void for life-saving animal blood, veterinarians say.
Dr. Schneider, a specialist in internal medicine and hematology, is leaving her post at the Baltimore Veterinary Emergency and Referral Center in Catonsville. She said a survey confirmed the demand, especially for ferret blood.
The two California blood banks ship blood throughout North America. They deal only in canine blood and don't expect the Annapolis venture to cut into their business because of the seemingly endless demand from people who will go to great expense to save the family pet.
"In a time of recession, it's amazing how this business is growing. It doubles every year," said Pat Kaufman, owner of the Animal Blood Bank in Dixon, Calif., which sells about 500 units of dog blood and blood components a month.
Spending on pets
The amount that Americans are spending on their pets' health has increased from about $5 billion in 1987 to $7.4 billion in 1991, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. About 52 million households include dogs; 57 million have cats. Because ferret ownership is illegal in many places, estimates of the number of ferrets vary from 275,000 to 7 million.
"I'm thrilled that she is doing this," said Dr. Bernard F. Feldman, director of the 2-year-old Companion Animal Blood Bank at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, "Quite frankly, we need her."
The three-person commercial venture in Annapolis, affiliated with the Chesapeake Veterinary Referral Center, will keep small colonies of cats and ferrets to bleed regularly. But it is running a bloodmobile-style operation -- "similar to the Red Cross," said Patrick Lee Jr., chief operating officer -- to collect dog blood.
Already, Dr. Schneider said, she has taken blood from 135 donors, who get not juice and cookies but water and biscuits for their cooperation. A health screen and free blood should donors need it are among the benefits.
Donor dogs can be bled up to six times a year, she said.
Unlike humans, animals do not lie down and make a fist. They get jabbed in the jugular. Dogs sit; cats and ferrets, who are less willing donors, will be sedated, Dr. Schneider said.
The ferrets and cats will be put up for adoption after about three years of being bled.
While the Rockville-based animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals objects to maintaining caged animals for the purpose of bleeding them, national director Ingrid Newkirk said what the Annapolis blood bank is planning may not be bad.
Habitats with toys, exercise equipment and play areas are in the works. Designing the kitty city should not be a problem, Mr. Lee said, but the group is accepting advice for the ferrets.
Members of the Baltimore Ferret Club will hold regular "play groups" with the animals so they learn to live with people without nipping, club President Diane B. Rogers said.
Pets need transfusions for many reasons beyond fights and accidents. Domestic female ferrets, for example, tend to be susceptible to a form of anemia, Mr. Lee said.
Increasing sophistication in animal transfusion medicine is making it possible for more veterinarians -- not just specialists -- to prolong the lives of pets, said Gary A. Hauptmann, immediate past president of the 750-member Maryland Veterinary Medical Association and a veterinarian with the Towson Veterinary Hospital.
Price of plasma
But puppy love doesn't come cheap. A unit of dog plasma runs about $55, often more, and that does not include delivery, infusion and an office visit.
Amy, an 11-year-old golden retriever, has had several plasma transfusions since April as part of treatment for chronic liver disease. Each transfusion costs a few hundred dollars, and vet bills have gone into the thousands.
"I'm pretty sure that if she had not received those transfusions, that at this point in her disease she wouldn't be here with me," said owner Gwen Zappala, of Jarrettsville. California regulates animal blood banks and insists that donors from the public be retested before every donation, which Ms. Kaufman said is prohibitive in cost. Maryland has no animal blood bank regulations, said A. Cleveland Brown, a Beltsville veterinarian and president of the Maryland State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners.