Dogs line up to give blood

Matthew Santoni
| Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Susan VanAlstine said she is a regular blood donor, and after a visit to the Pittsburgh Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Center on Oct. 20, her three dogs may be, too.

If they're cleared by veterinarians, Mina, 4, Max, 3, and Mahni, 2, will donate blood for use in canine blood transfusions — one of several treatments that were not around in 1991, VanAlstine said, when her collie-wolfhound mix, Aesla, had to be put down after getting cancer.

“You almost have to approach it in a similar way to human treatment,” said VanAlstine, 44, a Lawrenceville resident and chair of the group that built and dedicated the new Bernard Dog Run in that neighborhood this month.

“You have to balance what the benefits are against the quality of life. ... If a little bit of chemo, surgery, radiation would have given us more time, good time, then I would have done it,” she said.

Changing attitudes toward pets and the increasing availability of advanced veterinary equipment and procedures are increasing the lengths that families will go to for their pets, said Dr. Kenton Rexford, a co-founder of PVSEC in Ohio Township.

Clinics such as PVSEC or AVETS Animal Hospital in Monroeville offer MRIs, CT and ultrasound scans and specialists like neurologists and oncologists, who once were found only at vet schools.

Medical advances tested on animals to benefit humans are moving back into the animal sphere. For instance, veterinary hospitals are acquiring MRI scanners outdated for use in human hospitals. AVETS spokeswoman Jill Germanowski said the hospital offers radioactive iodine treatments for animals with thyroid cancer.

“If you are able to provide a service, a treatment or a procedure that can improve their pet's quality of life or extend their life, there's a significant portion of the pet-owning population that will do that,” said Rexford, 44.

Nationally, people are spending more and more on pets, according to the Schaumberg, Ill.-based American Veterinary Medical Association. Total vet expenditures rose from $11.6 billion in 2001 to $19.1 billion in 2011.

Average yearly veterinary spending in 2011 for a household with dogs was $378, up $22 from the association's last survey in 2006; 12.7 percent of dog owners spent between $500 and $999; and 9.2 percent spent $1,000 or more in 2011. The association said 5.7 percent of dog owners carry a health insurance policy for their pets, as do 2.6 percent of cat owners.

Canine blood transfusions — used to treat cancer, poisonings or severe blood loss due to injury — are becoming more common after once being regarded by pet owners as too expensive or complicated, said Dr. Christine Rutter, medical director of the emergency room and blood bank at PVSEC.

The center's blood drive Oct. 20 will sign up potential donors, replenish its blood bank and benefit the nonprofit Animal Care and Assistance Fund, which helps families offset the cost of expensive veterinary treatments.

“Fewer people see (their dog) needing a blood transfusion as an end-stage thing,” Rutter said. “I see more and more success stories.”

Since she arrived at PVSEC three years ago, the number of transfusions has gone up from 15 to 20 percent each year, Rutter said. The center, which specializes in 24-hour emergency medicine for pets, performs about one transfusion every 36 hours at a cost of about $350.

This weekend the national nonprofit 2 Million Dogs will make Pittsburgh-area stops to highlight canine cancer research and treatment and how it overlaps with human cancer research.

“Not everyone knows that dogs get cancer, or that it's the same kind of cancer that humans get, from a biological standpoint,” said Luke Robinson, who tours the country raising money for canine cancer research and awareness after the death of his Great Pyrenees, Malcolm, in 2006.

Robinson, along with dogs Hudson and Murphy, walked from Austin to Boston in 2008. He founded 2 Million Dogs in 2010 to sponsor shorter, local awareness walks across the country.

He hopes that canine cancer research can lead to a greater understanding of human cancers. His organization recently donated $50,000 to support a study out of Princeton University examining breast cancer in dogs.

“If you ask me, dogs hold the answer,” Robinson said. “They drink the same water we do. They breathe the same air we do. They're the canary in the coal mine.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or

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