Despite decades of exposés, only California closely regulates the veterinary blood business
VALLONIA, Indiana––A seven-month People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals undercover investigation of the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank in Vallonia, Indiana, has again put the largely unregulated veterinary blood industry under a microscope.
The Veterinarians’ Blood Bank exposé comes seven years after a similar PETA investigation closed the Pet Blood Bank in Cherokee, Texas, and five years after PETA published exposés of practices at Animal Blood Resources International in Stockbridge, Michigan, and Hemopet, an Animal Blood Resources International subsidiary in Garden Grove, California.
The PETA findings about the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank were shared with New York Post reporter Lisa Fickenscher and posted to https://investigations.peta.org/veterinarians-blood-bank/ on January 17, 2024.
The Veterinarians’ Blood Bank, keeping “nearly 900 dogs and cats perpetually confined to barren kennels and crowded pens,” alleged PETA, “found that workers bled animals who were elderly, emaciated, and sick with upper respiratory infections, bone cancer, and other issues.”
The largest Veterinarians’ Blood Bank client may be BluePearl, a subsidiary of Mars Inc., headquartered in Tampa, Florida, described by WFLA-Tampa digital producer Brody Wooddell as “a billion-dollar brand operating over 100 specialty and emergency hospitals nationwide.”
Wrote PETA senior vice president Daphna Nachminovitch to BluePearl, apparently sending a copy to Wooddell, “Animals at this supplier are treated like live blood bags, serving a life sentence amid deafening noise and in barren pens, denied a home or family, and deprived of needed medical attention and any semblance of joy.”
Registered as “breeding kennel”
Reported Wooddell, “In addition to urging BluePearl to reconsider its relationship with the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank, PETA has alerted other large veterinary chains listed as clients.”
The Veterinarians’ Blood Bank is registered and inspected as a breeding kennel, to the extent that it is inspected by anyone.
Indiana Board of Animal Health spokesperson Denise Derrer Spears acknowledged to Fickenscher that until PETA filed a recent complaint, the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank had not been inspected in “five or six years.”
The Veterinarians’ Blood Bank does do some breeding, in what PETA photos and video indicate are essentially “puppy mill” conditions.
“Many of the animals were born and bred at the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank,” PETA said, although during the PETA undercover probe, “the facility acquired some as strays or from staff who answered ads seeking homes for unwanted animals.”
The middle of nowhere
Vallonia, Indiana, population 336, located between an hour and two hours’ drive from Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Louisville, might be described as “the middle of nowhere.”
“Tucked away off quiet Indiana roads—kept ‘hush-hush’ by management, as one worker explained—the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank confines approximately 360 dogs and more than 500 cats,” according to PETA.
“As many as 30 cats,” PETA charged, are kept “in pens that lack adequate hiding places and enrichment—just a cardboard box, some milk crates, and a few ping-pong balls here and there.
“Staff forced cats to compete for access to food, water, perches, and plastic kiddie pools of litter, which weren’t scooped on weekends.
“With nothing to do and no relief from chronic frustration and loneliness, cats climbed the walls and dogs barked continuously,” according to PETA, a scene demonstrating that whatever conditions are commonly accepted at overcrowded animal shelters tend to become the default norms for housing dogs and cats anywhere.
Bled for 10 years or more
The Veterinarians’ Blood Bank “breeds puppies and kittens,” explains the PETA web page, “so that their blood can be extracted for their entire lives—usually a decade or more—and then sold.
At least that is what the veterinary clientele tends to expect.
However, PETA alleged, “While the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank claims to be a ‘closed colony’—a phrase that suggests a level of safety to veterinary hospitals seeking to purchase safe blood products—many animals at the facility actually came from random sources.”
PETA described many examples of the “closed colony” quasi-quarantine being broken.
Sick animals allegedly used for blood
“Newly arrived cats sometimes tested positive for contagious diseases such as feline herpesvirus and mycoplasma,” accused PETA, “but they would still eventually be used for blood.
“Animals who need blood transfusions are typically critically ill or injured. They depend on the blood they receive to be healthy and uncontaminated,” explained PETA. “But if patients at a veterinary hospital receive blood purchased from the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank, there is a good chance it was taken from animals who were themselves sick, injured, elderly, or medicated—putting the well-being of both the “donor” and recipient animals at risk.”
“Veterinary presence & supervision negligible”
Perhaps most damning, said PETA, after presenting specific case histories and photos of animals at the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank, “Despite the blood bank’s name—and even though it is owned by two veterinarians—the veterinary presence and supervision at the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank was negligible.
“Most days, no veterinarian stepped foot in the facility. The one who did typically stayed for only 30 minutes, and it was sometimes unclear whether he even examined animals with injuries or chronic health conditions.
“Laypeople with no veterinary credentials performed ‘dentals’ and even pulled dogs’ teeth out. Workers with no veterinary licensure administered vaccines, anesthetized animals, stitched wounds, and more.”
PETA also charged that the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank draws blood from donor dogs and cats about twice as often as is standard in the industry.
“No federal guidance”
Summarized New York Post reporter Lisa Fickenscher, “PETA cited photos and videos of a staggering 860 animals held” at the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank.
“The Indiana State Board of Animal Health has opened an investigation of the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank,” Fickenscher confirmed.
“There is no federal guidance about the ‘housing and treatment of animal blood donors,’ according to the Association of Veterinary Hematology and Transfusion Medicine,” Fickenscher continued, as ANIMALS 24-7 reported in 2001, 2002, and 2021.
Entered at transition point
“There are about 10 large commercial animal blood banks like the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank in the U.S,” found Fickenscher, “with the rest administered by veterinary schools or nonprofits where most animal donors live in homes as pets, according to Association of Veterinary Hematology and Transfusion Medicine president Dana LeVine, who teaches at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University.”
That much has not changed in more than 20 years, but much else has changed about the veterinary blood business.
Reported Fickenscher, “Veterinarians’ Blood Bank was founded in 2002 by veterinarians Ron Harrison and Darren Bryant, according to its website, which has a blog that hasn’t been updated since 2014.”
Harrison, 59, and Bryant, 58, both appear to be semi-retired from actual veterinary medical practice. They entered the veterinary blood business when it was at a transition point.
“Donor” animals were “sacrificed”
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. And there was never any shortage of impounded strays to exsanguinate, a fancy term for “bleed to death.”
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.
Angell Memorial Hospital
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 care.
By the late 1980s, exchanges of 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.
But the relationships between animal shelters and blood banks were at times abused.
Animal Blood Resources International
“Between 2016 and 2018,” reported PETA, ” at least two Michigan animal shelters—Arenac County Animal Control and Ingham County Animal Control and Shelter—sent at least 27 cats to Animal Blood Resources International.
“In addition, at least one of these shelters gave cats away to Animal Blood Resources International for free, and both shelters marked them as ‘adopted,’ so that no animals had to be reported as ‘sold for research’ on the shelters’ annual reports to the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development—even though Animal Blood Resources International is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a research facility and as a Class B ‘random source’ animal dealer.”
Both shelters ended their dealings with Animal Blood Resources International, PETA said, after PETA exposed them.
Meanwhile, continued rising demand for dogs’ blood and plasma, in particular, soon outstripped the supply from nonprofit animal rescue projects.
This opened the market for companies like the Veterinarians’ Blood Bank to keep “closed colonies” of blood donor animals.
Most of the money, historically, has been in supplying dogs’ blood.
Demand for canine blood products, as for other veterinary services, has traditionally been stronger from dog owners than from cat owners.
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 cat, only seven dog breeds can become “universal donors.”
The seven include greyhounds, Dobermans, German shepherds, Airedales, Weimaraners, and the rare Chippiparai sighthound from India, a greyhound relative.
What happened in Texas
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.
Scandals involving alleged mistreatment of blood donor animals have, not surprisingly, usually involved ex-racing greyhounds.
That was the case in 2017 when a PETA undercover investigation closed the Pet Blood Bank in Cherokee, Texas.
Reported PETA at the time, “Imprisoned in an old turkey shed are approximately 150 perpetually penned greyhounds—many already used, abused, and discarded by the notorious dog racing industry—who neurotically spin in circles, jump up and down, cry out, and hide in the jagged old chemical tanks that serve as their only shelter.”
The Washington Post reported that 151 greyhounds from the Pet Blood Bank were rehomed after the Pet Blood Bank shut down.
California, becoming in 2001 the only U.S. state that closely regulates the veterinary blood product industry, has twice updated the original regulations, while most of the other 49 states appear to have done little or nothing.
The latest update, taking effect on January 1, 2022, ended a requirement in effect since the passage of the original regulation that veterinary blood products for dogs had to come from either of two state-licensed canine blood banks, which since 2001 had together enjoyed a near-monopoly on canine blood supply since 2001.
The 2022 amendment was expected to encourage more veterinarians to operate canine blood banks, accepting donations from clients in exchange for services.
But that has not happened yet, and cannot happen without further regulatory changes, reported Lisa Wogen for the Veterinary Information Network on November 7, 2023.
“In the nearly two years since the law went into effect,” wrote Wogen, “39 community blood banks have registered with the California Veterinary Medical Board to obtain a blood bank premises permit. Nearly all, however, are only collecting blood for use in their own patients.”
One roadblock, Wogen indicated, is that, “The state Business & Professions Code specifies that blood banks ‘shall not provide payment to a person who provides an animal for the purpose of donating that animal’s blood’; and ‘payment’ can include the transfer of a ‘valuable consideration that can be converted to money by the recipient,’ but excludes fees for veterinary tests, medications, vaccinations and screenings.”
In other words, the owner of a donor animal cannot exchange blood for veterinary surgical services, cancer treatments, and other high-priced animal care.
Eight to 20-week wait for blood
“In California,” continued Wogen, “there are two closed-colony operations: Hemopet, a nonprofit near Santa Ana that sells canine blood, and Animal Blood Bank Inc., also doing business as Animal Blood Resources International, a for-profit in Dixon that sells canine and feline blood.
“The California Department of Food and Agriculture will discontinue licensing these banks,” Wogen said, “within 18 months of making a finding that community blood banks sold more canine blood and blood component products, such as frozen plasma and red blood cells, than closed-colony operations for four consecutive quarters.”
Nationwide, Wogen found, the wait time for orders of veterinary blood supplies ranges from eight to 20 weeks.