California blood bank shake-up opens market to veterinarians

Law aims to derive canine blood from pets in community rather than captive colonies

Published: October 28, 2021
By Jennifer Fiala

Photo courtesy of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine
The University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine operates one of the country's largest canine community blood banks, but it serves only patients of the veterinary teaching hospital — for now.

Ask Dr. Ken Pawlowski about his plans to start a community blood bank to address supply needs in his area, and he ticks off a half-dozen expenditures: $20,000 to $30,000 for a commercial refrigerated centrifuge; $2,000 for a large refrigerator; another $2,000 or so for a deep freezer equipped to store plasma.

Add to that the funds required for other necessities — bedding, bandages, bags — used to collect, process and store blood, along with a space dedicated for warehousing and distribution. "I also need to start looking at the cost of screening the blood, as well," Pawlowski pondered by phone. "I haven't gone out and asked, 'Who wants blood, and how much?' "

Despite the startup expense, Pawlowski said, the endeavor "shouldn't cost us more than what we've been doing." 

Up to now, what Pawlowski's 24-hour veterinary practice near Sacramento, California, has been doing is buying blood products from suppliers who obtain blood from colonies of confined dogs. But that model could be phased out of business in the Golden State under legislation signed Oct. 9 by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The California Pet Blood Modernization Act, which takes effect Jan. 1, authorizes veterinarians licensed in California to open commercial animal blood banks that function like human blood banks in that blood is derived from individuals living in the community. Pet owners will be able to volunteer their animals to have blood drawn, usually in exchange for services such as health screenings and examinations. 

Pawlowski, who lobbied for the change as a former president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, described the canine blood supply in his area as "tenuous." He recounted a case eight months ago, when a veterinarian in his practice removed a mass on a dog that ended up going into crisis and needing blood. "At first, it was one or two units and some plasma," he said. "But then it became more. We collected blood from a staff member's dog and then had to go out and borrow blood from multiple hospitals. That single case pretty much depleted the blood supply in the Sacramento region." 

Asked why area practices don't simply keep more supply on hand, Pawlowski cited timing, shelf life and cost: "If I buy blood today, I won't have it for six to eight weeks. As a growing emergency hospital, our use and need has been sporadic. If I order too much, we will have blood that goes bad, and it's expensive. Just eight units can cost $1,500. I can't afford to throw away $1,500."

Many veterinarians avoid commercial suppliers by procuring blood for use in their practices via clinic dogs and cats. And the concept of obtaining blood from dogs in the community is not new. More than 80 such blood banks exist in the United States. California long had been alone in requiring that purchased blood be obtained from dogs that live in captive, closed colonies, where they are bled every couple of weeks. There are two such operations in the state: Hemopet, a nonprofit near Santa Ana; and Animal Blood Resources International (ABRI), a for-profit business in Dixon.

Supporters of the closed-colony model say it ensures a reliable blood supply free from disease. Opponents consider it to be cruel and outdated.

Their hope is that the closed-colony blood banks will voluntarily transition to community collection. ABRI attorney Jeffrey Leacox, during a hearing on the legislation in July, told lawmakers that the company was "neutral" on the bill. Whether that means ABRI plans to make the transition is unclear; neither ABRI nor Hemopet responded to VIN News Service requests for comment.

The CVMA cautiously supports shifting to community blood banks. The organization wasn't always on board with the proposal, which has been debated for decades in the state Legislature.  

The CVMA has been concerned that the change will force Hemopet and ABRI to close, stressing a tight market in which some practices already cannot obtain the blood supplies they need.

"There's already a shortage," said Dr. Grant Miller, CVMA director of regulatory affairs. "And we wouldn't want this law to make that problem worse. We're stepping into an unproven model."

However, Miller continued, the CVMA recognizes that housing dogs for years in order to take their blood is a welfare concern and it wants community blood banks to succeed in the state.

"We support the change if closed-colonies can be safely phased out," he said. "Can community banks sustainably and safely produce the same volume of blood and blood products [as ABRI and Hemopet]? Veterinarians are going to have to get up and running and ramp up product so we can find out."

Big 'if'

For the reforms in the new law to come to fruition, community banks must generate the same volume of blood and blood products sold in the state by closed-colony banks, as reported to the state Department of Food and Agriculture, which licenses and inspects commercial animal blood banks. If that future data shows that community blood banks match or exceed their production for four consecutive quarters, closed-colony collectors will have 18 months to change their business model or close shop.

But first, the state has to tally how much of the whole blood, packed red blood cells and fresh frozen plasma is produced by closed-colony operators for use in California, and report that information to lawmakers and the California Veterinary Medical Board starting March 1. (Animal blood banks had been exempt from the California Public Records Act since 2002.)

Future players?

Among the veterinary practices considering establishing a community blood bank for dogs is the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which operates a spay/neuter clinic and full-service animal hospital, as well as a shelter.

Setting up a blood bank is not a new concept for the SF SPCA. At one time, the nonprofit organization purchased equipment to run a blood bank before realizing it couldn't do so legally in California. That was more than a decade ago, and the equipment has been sold off. "And so, this was not top of mind until this bill came up," said Brandy Kuentzel, the SF SPCA's senior vice president of advocacy and public policy. "But we're certainly interested."

Whether and how the SF SPCA might participate is yet to be determined.

"We do such a high volume of veterinary care, it would make sense for us," Kuentzel said. "We just aren't sure about the financial viability and ability to supply significant volume outside our own operations."

The organization is awaiting best-practices guidelines from the Department of Food and Agriculture to aid its assessment.

Already in the business is the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, home to one of the largest community blood banks in the United States. The UC Davis Veterinary Blood Bank collects an array of blood products from dogs, cats, sheep, goats, cows, pigs and horses. "On average, for dogs, we have about 600 units a year," which represents about three-fourths of the blood bank's stock, said Dr. Steven Epstein, director of the operation. He estimates that half of the animals that provide blood are owned by members of the veterinary school community.

The blood is used in the veterinary teaching hospitals, where 800 to 1,000 transfusions are performed a year. The bank does not sell product commercially.

In the past, UC Davis officials have signaled that they'd consider making blood and blood products available for third-party sale if it were legal to do so. Now that community blood banks are permitted — even encouraged — by the state, the UC Davis operation could expand its scope.

"There are a lot of complexities and pros and cons," Epstein said. "We're looking at the logistics and the needed space and new equipment. It's something we want to consider." 

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