A hero of a horse at the Large Animal Hospital helps out others in need

Jerret Raffety

Few creatures earn their keep as a full-time blood donor.

But staff and faculty members at the University’s Large Animal Hospital said the job is perfectly suited to a 1,800-pound Belgian draft horse that can spare between 8 liters and 12 liters of blood up to every two weeks.

Hercules, 7, one of two horses that live year-round at the hospital, is usually only called upon to give blood to other horses approximately six times a year.

Julia Wilson, a professor of veterinary population medicine, said the blood is often used to treat horses with blood loss from injuries, internal bleeding from reproduction or certain equine diseases.

“Blood types in horses are analogous to humans – horses have similar blood groups,” Wilson said. “Hercules is unique for us; we know he is AQ negative, which are the two major blood groups that cause problems in transfusion.”

Wilson said Hercules, for the last three years, has been very useful because he has matched almost every horse that has needed a blood transfusion. Finding a true universal donor for horses, similar to type O blood donors for humans, is virtually unheard of, Wilson said.

Sheryl Ferguson, a veterinary technician at the hospital, said that despite his noble job, Hercules leads a carefree life.

“He has a pretty pampered, easy life – he gets to hang out and have fun just for those six cases a year,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said when called upon, Hercules is always ready to perform his duties without trouble.

After a vein is selected, the blood-donation process begins by shaving and disinfecting an area of Hercules’ neck after he is put into a metal containment area, known as a stock.

A painkiller is administered to numb the spot where the needle is put into his neck and soon donated blood fills a bag, which is monitored to ensure the proper amount of blood is drawn from Hercules.

“His biggest thing is his stomach – when we are drawing blood, all it takes is putting some grain or some hay in front of him and he’ll stand there all day long,” Ferguson said. “He absolutely feels nothing – to tell you the truth, I think he knows his job and I think he likes it.”

A horse as cooperative as Hercules can be rare, she said. At one point, the University could not find a horse to donate blood for longer than two years at a time before the horse became too resistant or needle-shy to donate, Ferguson said.

Wilson said some blood-donating horses have even become aggressive over time. The University was lucky to get Hercules when he was young enough to adapt to his blood-donating lifestyle and, without any unforeseen illnesses, Hercules could continue to donate blood up to the next 10 to 15 years, she said.

Ferguson said a horse can expect to be adopted by a good home when it retires from donating blood.

April Schroeder, a veterinary technician assistant, has cared for Hercules for three years.

“He’s very casual, very happy to see everybody and not finicky about people, treats or other horses – not a mean bone in his body,” Schroeder said.