Canine Blood Drives Help to Bolster Veterinary Blood Banks

Written by Kaitlin Hill | Photos by Andrea Hallett Photography

Loyal, playful, and undeniably cute, dogs leave little to be desired in terms of the perfect companion. From therapy animals to hunt country sidekicks, our four-legged friends are perhaps most loved for their unwavering support during humankind’s times of need.

TV writer and personality Andy Rooney once said, “The average dog is a nicer person than the average person.” Though in fairness, he may not have considered the people of Middleburg and nearby communities who so often go above and beyond average when working for a worthy cause. In December, a group of charitable locals and their philanthropic pups assembled at Mary B. Schwab’s Stoneleigh Farm for their first monthly canine blood drive to address the seriously low inventory at veterinary blood banks.

Even among dog owners, the idea of donating canine blood isn’t necessarily familiar. “Gayle Cayse, kennel master of the Snickersville Hounds, alerted me to the need for canine blood,” Nicole Watson says, a founding member of the blood drive and resident of Purcellville. Her dogs now donate once a month. “Until then, I had no idea that dogs had 12 different blood types. I shared the idea with my friends Liz Billings and Mary B. Schwab, and all of us being dog people and charitably-minded we came up with the idea of a blood drive.”

Watson also contacted the Northern Virginia Veterinary Blood Bank and linked up with Casey Mills. “When Nicole learned about the need in the community, she reached out to see if it was something we would be interested in and if we would partner with her and some other dog owners in Middleburg,” Mills says.

With NVVBB on board, Watson, Mills and company turned to the community in search of donors. Watson notes, “We used a little bit of Facebook, a little bit of word of mouth,” Watson says. “And I’ve been doing flyers that say, ‘calling all good dogs’ because that is the spirit behind it all.”

“Honestly, when we originally talked, I didn’t realize how big the community support would be,” Mills says. “But on our first donation day in Middleburg, we had 15 new donor dogs join the program.” Held at Mary B. Schwab’s Stoneleigh Farm on Dec. 21, 2020, the all-day, appointment-only, COVID-safe affair offered festive hats and cookies for humans and plenty of toys and peanut butter for the donating pups.

But more than squeaky toys and treats, Watson and Mills focused on creating positive energy during the donation process. “We want this to be a positive experience for [the dogs],” Mills says. “We schedule each dog for a half hour appointment. That starts with getting to know them, we want to snuggle them a little bit and make sure they are happy.”

Casey Mills cuddling a dog.

Once comfortable, each dog starts with a pre-screening to make sure it’s a healthy and eligible participant. “We have donor requirements we ask them to meet,” Mills says. “We would like dogs to be between one and seven years old and they are required to be at least 50 pounds to donate a full unit safely. We check all their cell counts and make sure there is nothing weird there. We also test for infectious diseases. We like to make sure that anything we are passing along is safe for the recipient. If everything looks good and they are not anemic or dehydrated, which we check prior to every donation, they can go ahead and donate the same day.”

After the puppy equivalent of a finger prick, which fulfills the prescreening, each dog then donates 450 ML — about two cups — of blood. Though the process may sound daunting, Mills says they take many precautionary measures. “We use a numbing cream, so they don’t feel the pinch of the needle,” Mills says. “They get snuggled on the table, and then they sit with a Band-Aid for a few minutes afterward and get whatever their favorite treat is. Then they are good to go.” And while the whole appointment is 30 minutes, the actual process of drawing blood only takes two or three minutes.

Kim Keppick of Rectortown and her three rescue dogs participated in the inaugural December event and in the second event in Upperville on Jan. 18. “When it came to actually donating blood it was really cute,” she says. “It happened in a horse stall on a masseuse-type bed with what they call ‘a professional dog cuddler’ who basically laid on the bed adoring the dog.” While two of her dogs were naturals, the third was a little timid. “One of my dogs was a little bit nervous, so I had to go in there and help with him. He wanted to do it sitting up. But he is even a baby about getting his toenails clipped. He did have all the moral support he needed, and he really enjoyed his peanut butter too.”

Dogs at the blood drive.

The benefits of the blood drive go far beyond peanut butter. For participants, each dog is given a free blood work up and access to blood for life anywhere in the country. “I was floored by the detail and quality of the blood chemistry panel they provided,” Watson says. “It’s worth about $500, which is expensive. And, if you donate blood, the blood bank will make sure that your dog has blood if you need it, wherever you are in the country. And they’ll even clip their nails.”

For potential recipients, the impact is even more significant. “There are a lot of different reasons that can cause a dog to need a blood transfusion,” Mills says. “Whether it is trauma, or surgery, or if a dog gets into certain toxins … rodent poison and sugar-free gum seem to be common things dogs get into, they require a plasma transfusion. A lot of people who donate know a dog or have had a dog that required a blood transfusion. They really know how hard it can be to find blood especially in an emergency situation.”

“If we in the Middleburg community can increase the blood bank’s capacity by 50% in a month, with one day of effort, that’s amazing,” Watson says. “That is 60 dogs’ lives that are saved.” While the effort behind the blood drive is completely local, their work has the potential to reach far beyond Virginia.

Nicole Watson and Liz Billings.

“We do prioritize the vets in our local community because all of our donors are from the local community,” Mills says. “But we do supply blood out of state when needed. If someone calls us with a patient that is in dire need of a blood transfusion, we’ll send it to anyone who needs it. We are trying to help out as many as we can. And, with so few blood banks it is near impossible to keep up with demand. Middleburg is making a huge impact and helping us keep up with as much demand as we possibly can.”

Moving forward, Watson envisions a few distinct donor pools and rotating venues to avoid putting too much pressure on the hounds or the hosts. There are two events in the books and slots already filling for February. “I think it will be interesting to see how it evolves,” she says. “It has been heartening to see how the community has embraced it.” She is working on picking an official name for the blood drive and NAVBB has applied for 501 c3 status.

Perhaps the most heartening part of the experience is the connections it creates, person to person, and person to pet. “There’s that feeling of community,” Watson says. “I think everybody loves their dogs and when they feel like their dog is giving back, I could see the pride as some of the donors shared pictures or shared stories. They were just so proud of their animals.” ML

For more information or to sign up to be a donor email Nicole Watson at nicole.v.watson@gmail.com.