Count Dracula meets the Greyhound of the Baskervilles
SACRAMENTO, California––California, the only U.S. state that closely regulates the veterinary blood product industry, as of January 1, 2022 will have a new regulatory regime for sourcing canine blood products for the third time in 20 years.
California governor Gavin Newsom on October 9, 2021 endorsed into law Assembly Bill 1282, ending the requirement in effect since 2001 that veterinary blood products for dogs must come from either of two state-licensed canine blood banks, which have together enjoyed a near-monopoly on canine blood supply since 2001.
“Under the new law,” explained Los Angeles Times staff writer Melody Gutierrez, “veterinarians in the state will be able to operate canine blood banks similar to the voluntary model used for people, which is anticipated to help increase the amount of lifesaving supplies needed to heal injured or ailing pets.
Monopoly thrives on shortage
“A national shortage of dog blood has left veterinarians scrambling for limited supplies,” Gutierrez mentioned.
The shortage has continued for decades.
On the one hand the perpetual shortage of canine blood products reflects the elevated status of pet dogs in homes, with dog owners increasingly willing to spend money for life-extending surgeries instead of opting for euthanasia.
On the opposite hand, the canine blood product shortage reflects the success of animal advocacy in reducing the supply of dog blood donors.
From the start of frequent use of blood transfusions in connection with surgery on animals until the rise of the animal rights movement in the early 1980s, veterinarians commonly obtained and exsanguinated doomed shelter animals as their blood sources. The “donor” animals were literally sacrificed to help the pets of paying customers.
This practice fell into disrepute parallel to the growth of opposition to selling shelter animals for use in testing, teaching, and biomedical research.
Instead, many vet clinics began purchasing blood from the pets of staff members, in exchange for credit against future veterinary care.
Nonprofit animal blood banking
Angell Memorial Hospital at the Massachusetts SPCA pioneered nonprofit animal blood-banking. Staff members, veterinary students, and eventually members of the public were encouraged to bring their pets to give blood, in exchange for which they would receive certificates good for free vet care.
By the late 1980s, exchanges of dogs’ and cats’ blood for sterilization surgeries and vaccinations were a common way for small shelters and some individuals to run low-key dog and cat sterilization programs.
Similar programs are now in effect all over the world, but the continued rising demand for dogs’ blood and plasma, in particular, soon outstripped the supply from nonprofit organizations.
Demand for canine blood products is much higher than demand for cats’ blood, and filling the demand for canine blood products is also much more complicated.
There are 12 total dog blood types, compared to only three for cats. Further, while almost any cat can become a “universal donor” for almost any other cats, only seven dog breeds can become “universal donors.”
The seven include greyhounds, Dobermans, German shepherds, Airedales, Weimaraners, and the relatively rare Chippiparai sighthound from India, a greyhound relative.
Of these breeds, retired racing greyhounds are big, able to give a lot of blood at a time; docile; and until the recent collapse of the greyhound racing industry, were abundantly and inexpensively available. Therefore commercial canine blood banks have almost exclusively used kennels of caged greyhounds as their blood suppliers.
Shelter dog intake today includes relatively few dogs of “universal donor” breeds. Those who are surrendered to shelters tend to be quickly rehomed.
Pit bulls, now the majority of U.S. shelter dog intake, are notorious for often drawing blood, but are unsuitable for giving blood.
Shelters hid involvement in blood supply
Toward the end of the 20th century, before spay/neuter brought about the steep drop in shelter animal intake that enabled the rise of the “no kill” movement and ended the viability of shelters as a blood source, most shelters that were involved in veterinary blood supply tended to conceal the practice.
If supplying animals as blood donors came to light, shelters almost always tried to offset negative public response by guaranteeing the donor animals an adoptive home afterward, at a time when two-thirds or more of all shelter animals were euthanized, and by linking the practice of allowing animals to be used as blood donors to obtaining necessary services on behalf of other shelter animals.
Rather than even try to explain the arrangements, however, in March 2021 then-Washington D.C. animal control chief Peggy Keller halted loans of impounded animals as blood donors as soon as she learned that the kennel contractor, the Washington Humane Society, was allowing such loans to be made.
Jean Dodds & Patricia Kaufman
Her action set off ripples of investigation, protest, and legal response across the United States––especially in California, where Hemopet, of Garden Grove, founded by veterinarian Jean Dodds in 1986, and Animal Blood Bank Resources International, of Orland, founded by Patrica Kaufman in 1989, were among the first private blood suppliers that emerged to fill the supply gap.
Both supply animal blood products to veterinary hospitals nationwide. Hemopet is known to keep about 200 greyhounds; Animal Blood Bank Resources International has not disclosed how many dogs it keeps, of what breed or breeds.
In August 2001 then-California Governor Gray Davis signed SB 338, a bill requiring animal shelters to post notices to the public if they provide animals to blood banks or biological supply companies.
SB 338 responded not only to the Washington D.C. controversy, but also to 18 months of community outrage over the adoption of at least 97 dogs and 62 cats from the Butte County Humane Society since 1994 to Animal Blood Bank Inc.
Alleged abuse brought present regime
Animal Blood Bank Inc. merged with Midwest Animal Blood Services, Inc. in 2008 to become Animal Blood Bank Resources International, and moved to larger premises in Dixon, California, 100 miles farther south, but as of 2000 was still a much smaller company.
The Butte County issue erupted in March 2000 when former kennel worker Vickie Adams accused one of the subcontracted kennel managers who supplied Animal Blood Bank Inc. of repeatedly hanging and reviving an unruly dog.
The kennel manager, Matt Barkley, admitted hanging the dog once.
Other people wrote to the Orland-area newspapers claiming to have seen Barkley electroshocking dogs. Barkley meanwhile sought a permit to expand his kennels.
The episode moved beyond the initial allegations to focus on blood banking itself after PETA, the Humane Society of the U.S., and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights argued that death would be a better fate for an otherwise homeless dog than life as a blood donor.
California & D.C. issues combined
Both PETA and the Humane Society of the U.S. were, and remain, headquartered in the Washington D.C. area, and also become involved in the Washington D.C. animal blood supply issue.
The Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, then headquartered near the California state capital in Sacramento, was merged into the Humane Society of the U.S. in 2008.
In November 2000, as Kaufman amplified reports of a dog and cat blood shortage around the U.S. and Canada, the Butte County Humane Society adopted a policy against adopting animals to blood banks.
On October 3, 2002, a year after the passage of SB 388, California governor Gray Davis endorsed into law a far more sweeping bill regulating the animal blood business.
SB 1345, by state senator Sheila Kuehl, endorsed by most major national organizations that were politically involved in dog and cat issues, established “the first-ever protections for animal blood donors used by commercial blood banks in California,” United Animal Nations spokesperson Pat Runquist said at the time.
New California law overturns 2002 “victory” that wasn’t
Assembly Bill 1282 overturns much of SB 1345.
In particular, explained Melody Gutierrez to Los Angeles Times readers, “California currently requires that all animal blood purchased by veterinarians come from two privately owned companies that house hundreds of donor dogs at their facilities,” mostly former racing greyhounds, “for the sole purpose of collecting their blood.
“Animal rights groups have accused these facilities of mistreating donor dogs,” Gutierrez wrote, “but substantiating those claims is difficult because the companies have sweeping exemptions from public records laws, including sealing their state inspection records.
“Those records exemptions will no longer exist under Assembly Bill 1282. Under the bill, the phase-out of closed colony donor dog facilities will begin after supplies from the voluntary donation system meet veterinary demand, a timeline meant to ensure the shift does not worsen existing shortages,” Gutierrez summarized.
Compromise bill was vetoed in 2019
California governor Gavin Newsom in 2019 vetoed a similar bill which “would have allowed dog owners to volunteer their pets to donate blood while continuing to allow the two private companies with closed colonies to operate,” Gutierrez recalled.
“At the time, Newsom said he wanted legislators to send him a bill that would phase out using dogs ‘kept in cages for months and years to harvest their blood for sale.’”
Observed California state assembly member Richard Bloom in introducing Assembly Bill 1282, “California is the only state in the country that requires animal blood to come from so-called closed colonies that keep hundreds of animals confined for years for the sole purpose of harvesting their blood.”
What will become of Hemopet and Animal Blood Bank Resources International is unclear, but either or both may relocate from California, since they still have customers in many other states.
Alternatively, they could change their business model to use blood donations from dogs not kept in closed colonies.