Retired greyhounds forge new careers as blood donors

Ingrid Skjong

Once every three weeks Reaper, a sleek charcoal-colored greyhound with an endlessly wagging tail, patiently sits on an exam table at the University’s Lewis Hospital for Companion Animals and donates blood.
As one of 20 retired greyhound racers participating in the same tri-weekly ritual, Reaper is part of a two-fold effort that ensures the hospital’s blood bank remains stocked and provides adoptive homes for its faithful donors.
The greyhounds come to the hospital from area tracks where trainers are eager to find homes for their young athletes. In a sport where speed is key and careers are short, most of the retired dogs are either injured or not considered fast enough to continue racing after a couple of years.
“Usually if (trainers) can’t find a rescue organization to adopt them, they’ll probably destroy them,” said Sarah Noble, a veterinary technician who works closely with the greyhounds.
And that is what the donor program aims to prevent.
About 60 greyhounds have been adopted in the past five years, and three currently live at the hospital awaiting adoption. After placement, owners bring their new companions in every two to three weeks to give blood.
In exchange for an average two-year commitment, the hospital provides owners with free food for the dogs as well as vaccinations and medical care.
Brenda Robbins adopted her 7-year-old greyhound, Tailspin, in January. As a veterinary technician at the hospital she appreciates the convenience and benefits the donor program offers.
“It’s not a hassle,” Robbins said. “She comes to work with me when they need her.”
As the number of patients at the hospital grows, the demand for dogs like Tailspin is greater than ever.
Clinic veterinarians transfuse 800 components of blood each year to surgical cases and animals suffering from traumatic injuries or anemia. Each component contains one pint of red cells or plasma.
Veterinary technician Janice Parrow has worked with the donor program for 10 of its 15 years. When the greyhounds arrive from the tracks, Parrow is in charge of examinations and blood screenings.
Like humans, dog blood types vary, and universal donors are highly sought. The high occurrence of universally donative blood in greyhounds makes them especially valuable.
Their blood is also rich in red blood cells. Like most aerobic athletes, greyhounds require a large number of red cells to sufficiently oxygenate their bodies during strenuous runs.
From a procedural view the dogs’ lean, lanky physiques — the result of intense race training — make it easy for technicians to access veins, Parrow said.
“They’re perfect,” she added.
Blood drawn from the short-haired dogs can only be used for canine patients.
Technicians at the hospital take great care to ensure the greyhounds remain healthy donors. Each trip to the clinic includes a physical exam and mandatory iron supplements.
Throughout the five-minute procedure the docile animals sit quietly and absorb the attention the technicians lavish. Besides continual petting, the dogs snap up dog treats after the blood is drawn.
Their laid-back personalities make sedation unnecessary.
“They’re big couch potatoes,” Noble said. “I live in an apartment where I can’t have dogs; otherwise I’d have 10 of them.”