Presley arrived in the fall of 2012 at the Veterinary Emergency Clinic in Mississauga, Ontario, with a chronic sneeze, a history of homelessness and lousy credit. It might have been the end of the road for the cat, whose treatment would cost thousands if he’d had an owner willing to pay. But Presley had two things going for him: (1) The clinic housed a colony of cats whose job – in exchange for a warm place to sleep, plenty of attention, and the option of a long life – was to periodically donate blood; and (2) Presley was a Ragdoll cat with a rare and much-needed blood type.
While roughly 90 percent of cats possess Type A blood, Dr. Jennifer Kyes, a trauma specialist at the clinic, was the first to wonder if Presley just might have the B blood the clinic often lacked. “B is exceptionally rare,” she explains. “It’s found more often in the exotic breeds.” Like Russian Blues, Bengals, Scottish Folds…and Ragdolls.
Because the clinic exists to treat veterinary emergencies – broken limbs, accidents, strokes – as well as critical care for diseases such as cancer, it’s crucial to have access to a safe blood supply. Dr. Kyes had done her residency at a clinic in Rhode Island, which had on-site donor cats, and brought that idea with her to the Mississauga clinic. Since then, she’s built up a “staff” of seven cats, which are called into service roughly once every four weeks.
Since taking up residence at the clinic, Presley has become a favorite. He spends his days with Earl, an oversized tabby who found his way to the clinic thanks to a fractured jaw and an owner unable to pay for surgery, as well as Thurman, Beckham, Benson, Charlie and Patrick. The cats recently moved into “Henry’s House”, a glassed-in room at the front of the clinic that came about through the fundraising efforts of the grateful owners of Henry, a dog whom the clinic had treated. Not only do the cats have swanky new digs, but they’ve also become blood donor ambassadors – the faces of a procedure that few think about.
Animal blood donation is a relatively new industry, says Pat Kaufman, CEO of Animal Blood Resources International (ABRI), the first of its kind in the United States. Since ABRI’s inception, roughly 25 years ago, Kaufman has noted a steady increase in demand for animal blood products from vet clinics around North America. ABRI started in part because Kaufman lost a dog when her vet couldn’t do a transfusion. She started working on what seemed like “an insane idea,” she says. With her background as an agricultural biologist, the help of a friend who was a veterinary surgical nurse and a local vet who saw the value in having blood products available, Kaufman created a device to withdraw blood from a cat as well as “tiny bags” to collect the coagulants.
“Over the years we’ve refined it, and that’s what we sell to vets who do their own blood collection,” says Kaufman, referring to vets like Kyes at the clinic in Mississauga or Jill Greene, Blood Bank Director at the Dove Lewis Animal ER and ICU hospital in Portland, Oregon.
Jill Greene calls her on-site cats “superheroes.” Like Kyes’ cats, her colony of five felines consists of injured strays that owe their lives to the vets who treated them. “They live here at the clinic,” says Greene, noting that after one and a half to two years of service they’re adopted out. They each donate every couple of months, a process that, for cats, requires a reversible sedative, the drawing of roughly two tablespoons of blood, followed by the reward of a special meal and sometimes a new toy or treat.
Despite the now widespread practice of using animal blood products, there remains some controversy. A local newspaper that wrote a story on Kyes’ cats included a quote from someone who likened it to human slavery, an accusation that makes her scoff. Kaufman’s operation has perhaps had greater backlash because she relies on facilities that house animals.
Diane Carpenter, Adoption Coordinator with the ABRI in Michigan, insists that it’s the “Hilton of rescue groups.” The cats, she says, are not caged and instead roam freely in rooms with other cats. Volunteers – 21 families – routinely visit to walk and groom the dogs, play with the cats and “seek out the shyer ones so that they’re more adoptable when the times comes,” says Carpenter. She routinely visits Animal Control to select potential donors from the strays – looking for specific characteristics: between the ages of 1 and 5, easily handled, easygoing with other cats. These cats have blood drawn and screened to ensure that they’re healthy. If they pass, they can rest assured they’re off death row. “Our cats donate for a year then stay as long as necessary to find them a forever home,” says Carpenter.
It used to be easy. Cats were adopted as quickly as they became available, says Carpenter. Since the economy’s downturn however, things have changed. “We’re struggling,” Carpenter admits. “It can be at least a year before they’re adopted.”
Carpenter fell prey to one of her job’s “hazards,” she says, referring to the cat and dog she and her husband adopted into their home. Arlo is a beagle, a former platelets donor, while Gabby Hayes is a tiger-stripe, so-named for her chattiness. Gabby has lived with Carpenter for three years.
It’s a bright future that Presley and his feline gang at the Mississauga Veterinary Emergency Clinic can also look forward to one day. For now, however, Presley, Earl and the others continue to donate, ensuring a regular supply of blood for the emergencies that routinely come in the front door at the clinic. What’s more, clearly visible in Henry’s House, the cats offer daily reminders to those who visit that not all who heal wear white coats.
Leslie Garrett is an award-winning journalist and author of 14 books, including The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide to a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and One Our Kids Will Thank Us For).