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Dogs on call

Veterinary clinic’s team of greyhounds saves pets

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photos by Shane Epping
  • Published: May 29, 2012
Officer catches his breath after stretching his legs on an hour-long walk

Officer catches his breath after stretching his legs on an hour-long walk around the Mizzou campus. One of 10 greyhounds currently employed at MU's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, Officer works as a blood donor, supplying blood and plasma for canine patients. The dogs' universal blood type and lean, muscular bodies makes them ideal donors. 

There’s a handsome pack of greyhounds at MU’s Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital who help make happy endings. For sick pets, and the families that love them, these blood-donor dogs are lifesavers.

A blood transfusion from Elmo is credited with saving the life of Gunner Harrison, an AKC-registered chocolate Labrador who last Thanksgiving ate half a large bag of rat poison in the Harrisons' barn.

Frantic to save their beloved dog, the Harrisons rushed him from Hallsville to the veterinary hospital’s Small Animal Clinic, where veterinarians started the lethargic animal on an IV and vitamin K and gave him transfusions with plasma donated by Elmo.

To donate the blood, Elmo lay quietly on a stainless steel lab table for about 15 minutes, soothed by gentle voices, plenty of petting and the anticipation of a dog cookie. Like the rest of the team, he’s used to the donation process.

“It doesn’t hurt them. We rub ears, talk softly and give belly rubs, if they prefer that,” says Professor Leah Cohn, DVM, who manages the hospital’s blood bank.

“Gunner’s situation was pretty grim. We didn’t know if he would make it,” says Amy Harrison. But Gunner, who had been bleeding internally, thrilled his veterinarians and family with a full recovery.

Retired racers 

Elmo receives some loving from Danner

Halfway through a walk, Julie Danner, a fourth-year veterinary-medicine student, removes Elmo's muzzle and lets him stretch out on the Quad with Officer. Most of MU's canine blood donors are retired race dogs who work with Vet Med before they're adopted by families.

The tall, muscular donor dogs are hard to miss. You may have seen these well-behaved greyhounds walking on campus. Veterinary students and volunteers exercise the dogs at least twice a day and enjoy showing them off on excursions to Francis Quadrangle.

Elmo, Officer, Munkee, Showman, Barone, Rowdy, Wilbur, Villain, Boo and Chopper came to Mizzou after their racing careers ended when they were 3 to 5 years old. Mizzou acquires nearly all its donor dogs from racetracks. The animals serve as blood donors for one to two years before being offered for adoption.

“We keep them until they find a home. They were committed to us; we’re committed to finding them a home. We’ve never had one we couldn’t place,” Cohn says.

Greyhounds make ideal blood donors. Many have a universal blood type that is unlikely to cause adverse reactions in transfusions, and they’re large enough to give a full unit of blood monthly. Their lean musculature and big, prominent veins make blood collecting easy, and because they’re bred to run, racing greyhounds produce a higher concentration of oxygen-carrying red blood cells than almost any other breed.

As an added benefit, with their docile personalities, greyhounds are a pleasure to work with, Cohn says.

MU veterinarians keep the donor animals at the peak of health with routine exams, tick prevention, proper diets, exercise and attention.

The greyhounds wear basket muzzles during their walks to prevent them from eating anything they might find on the ground. The muzzles are for the dogs' own protection, Cohn says; they’re “lovely dogs, not vicious.”

A cat’s tale

Transfusion medicine is an important part of veterinary medicine, so having blood to give patients is critical.

Donated blood is used to treat animals with anemia, bleeding during surgery, reactions to ingesting poison and other indications. Serving as MU’s blood donors for cats is a group of felines living in a room known as Cat Wonderland.

The veterinary hospital typically uses about 10 units of blood a month for dog and cat patients combined, but a very sick animal can use a lot of blood.

That was the case with Spriggett, a domestic longhair cat from Cherryville, Mo. The sweet pet of Sarah Carney and John Sunderland became seriously ill in late April with bobcat fever, a tick-born disease.

While searching the Internet, the couple discovered Cohn had done research on a new treatment for the disease, so they made the three-hour drive to MU, where Spriggett would be hospitalized for a week (with visits from family). Spriggett received an emergency course of antibiotics, a unit of plasma and four units of whole blood from a previously infected cat that had survived the disease. 

At 11:00 one night, Carney received a call from the hospital saying Spriggett needed red blood cells, but MU’s supply was depleted, so veterinarian Julie Trzil went home and drew blood from her own cat. 

In thanks, Spriggett will donate blood next month for a study on bobcat fever. “We owe them. We brought home a healthy cat,” Carney says. 

Blood and research

Blood banking has been used for years at Mizzou. MU’s veterinary technicians prepare the blood as different kinds of transfusion products to use and store efficiently.

At times veterinary treatments require whole blood, which can be separated into plasma and red blood cells for different uses. Anemic animals, for example, need packed red blood cells, but bleeding animals need plasma.

For availability, plasma can be frozen up to a year for a long storage life, but whole blood is good under refrigeration for only 30 days. Among her research studies, Cohn has tested the survival time of greyhound red blood cells in comparison to those of other breeds. 

As for patient Gunner Harrison, the former barn dog graduated to being an “inside lug,” creating a good life for himself while continuing to delight his family.

“Without the greyhound donors, we wouldn’t have Gunner," Harrison says. "I believe nothing but good things are in store for them."

Read more in:  Family & CommunityOn CampusHealth & MedicineBeyond CampusScience & Technology

Reader feedback

  • LOVED the article on the blood donor greyhounds at Vet Med. I’ve been seeing them on campus for years and always wondered what their story was. My sister has adopted several rescue greyhounds over the years, and they are wonderful dogs. Nice to see them being appreciated at Mizzou!

  • We rescued our greyhound, Keener, from the local race track. At 4, she developed histoplasmoma (fungal infection). The vet only gave her only a 20 percent chance of survival ... but she has returned to normal!

    She is the sweetest girl!!

  • I loved the article on the greyhounds. We are forever grateful to them, as they helped save the life of our Doberman, Guenther just over a year ago. Guenther is well-known at the vet school … known affectionately as the “mystery illness” dog. Greyhounds will always have a special place in our hearts — and in Guenther’s entire body!

    Thank you for the wonderful article. They deserve so much praise.

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Last updated: June 21, 2012