Dog blood banks save pets' lives. But are the donors protected?

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A website for a Texas-based company that provides canine blood products for veterinary transfusions nationally says it sources its blood “primarily from volunteer donors” and aims to “operate in a completely ethical, humane manner.” But an animal rights group contends it has evidence that the Pet Blood Bank does the opposite, procuring its supply from a colony of about 150 greyhounds that live in squalor in dirt-floored pens.

Photographs of the facility, which People for the Treatment of Ethical Treatment of Animals says a former blood-bank employee took between February and June, show kenneled dogs with open wounds, rotting teeth and toenails curling into their paw pads. The organization sent a letter Wednesday to the sheriff of San Saba County, where the company is located northwest of Austin, urging the seizure of dogs “being cruelly confined or unreasonably deprived of necessary food, care or shelter.” A dispatcher said Friday that an investigation is underway.

The former employee’s accusations could not be independently confirmed. In an interview Thursday, Pet Blood Bank owner Shane Altizer did not deny that the images were taken there, but said they predated his 2015 purchase of the company or were “moment snapshots” unrepresentative of overall conditions now.

The allegations provide a window into an industry that helps to save thousands of animals each year, although one that critics say needs more regulation. As the U.S. pet population grows and owners increasingly opt to treat injuries and other conditions with procedures requiring transfusions, animal blood banks are struggling to meet demand. Yet no federal standards exist, and only one state, California, regulates such operations and requires annual inspections.

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Veterinarian Anne Hale, former CEO of the nation’s first and largest commercial animal blood bank, said she visited the Pet Blood Bank this summer and was “pleasantly surprised” to find dogs that appeared healthy and happy. After viewing the photos and video circulated by PETA, however, Hale said Friday that her assessment had changed.

“It appears that the facility was ‘cleaned up’ before our touring,” Hale said in an email. “I agree that this facility should be addressed. This certainly suggests that regional, state and/or federal regulation is warranted.”

Experts say sanitary conditions and veterinary care are critical to ensuring that animals are healthy enough to donate blood and that they do not transmit blood-borne pathogens.

No one keeps count of animal blood banks, which take various forms. Commercial operations like the one in Texas sell their products to veterinary clinics or supply companies. But many veterinary hospitals run small-scale versions that usually get blood from staff-owned pets or from patients whose owners may volunteer them in exchange for discounted services.

And many university vet schools also have blood banks, some of which maintain in-house colonies of dogs or cats. These facilities are typically regulated and inspected by the institutions, said veterinarian Sarah Musulin, president of the Association of Veterinary Hematology and Transfusion Medicine.

The “vast majority of veterinary blood banks are overseen by veterinarians and veterinary technicians who have devoted their careers to the well being of animals,” said Musulin, who directs the blood bank at North Carolina State University. And many, she said, are eager to “create best-practice guidelines.” Those include using young, healthy animals that are vaccinated and on preventive medications and that undergo regular health screenings and assessments for stress behaviors.

One point of debate, particularly when it comes to dogs, centers on what donors to use. Many blood banks rely on a humanlike system, sponsoring blood drives and recruiting volunteers. Others use captive colonies, often made up of retired racing greyhounds, a breed that frequently has a universal blood type. Some use a mix of the two.

Colonies limit exposure to communicable diseases and keep dogs from having to travel for blood draws, but they require ample space and staff to keep the dogs fit and stimulated, Musulin said. Ideally, dogs are used for a short time and then placed up for adoption, she said.

Critics of the colony model say it is inhumane when volunteer programs are viable.

“We don’t have a problem with greyhound blood donors. We have a problem with captive greyhound blood donors,” said David Wolf, director of the National Greyhound Adoption Program. He cited the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary hospital as a model for having abandoned its colony in favor of a bloodmobile-based program. “Having blood donors is wonderful as long as they go home and sleep on their soft bed,” Wolf said.

California requires closed colonies, and Jean Dodds, the founder of Hemopet, a nonprofit commercial blood bank there, is adamant that it is the best way to ensure the safety of blood products and a regular supply. Hemopet’s website shows dogs resting in crates in brightly colored “bungalows” alongside a courtyard used for daily walks. It houses about 200 greyhounds that, depending on their weight, donate twice or three times a month before being made available for adoption after no more than one year, Dodds said.

“It should be standardized throughout the country,” she said of animal blood banking. “It’s basically a hole, and it should be filled.”

In Texas, the Pet Blood Bank has mostly used a colony model. It was founded in 2004 by Austin entrepreneur Mark Ziller, who said he initially sought volunteers and used a bloodmobile. When that did not turn up enough dogs, the company began using retired greyhounds housed in a kennel on a private farm northwest of Austin. Ziller said he sold the company in November 2015 to Altizer, whose family owns that farm in Cherokee.

“The Pet Blood Bank had a noble mission: It provided blood for veterinarians to use in lifesaving transfusions,” Ziller wrote in an email, saying that during his ownership the dogs had monthly flea, tick and heartworm medications and regular veterinary care.

After viewing the photos PETA obtained, he added, “To see the animals in that state is beyond depressing.”

Bill Larsen, 60, is the former employee who took the images. He said he first worked at the facility several years ago and that conditions were better then. He was shocked when he was rehired for several months earlier this year, he said.

He described the dogs’ quarters as pens in a former turkey shed that were frequently soiled with feces and urine. The animals had many ticks and were not allowed outside for exercise, he said. Many were what he called “cringe hounds.”

“When they see you touch the gate handle, they run into their [dog] house and hide,” said Larsen, who recounted how he’d unsuccessfully sought help from local animal shelters and a state agency before contacting PETA. “I just like dogs,” he said, and “hate for any animal to get treated like that.”

Altizer said he has tried to make rapid changes since taking over the company. A tick treatment program this summer “wiped out” that problem, he said, and he gave other explanations for other images shared by PETA: Greyhounds commonly have poor teeth; skinny, elderly dogs can get bedsore-type wounds that are hard to resolve. The pens are cleaned daily, and a local vet cares for the dogs, he insisted.

“If a dog isn’t healthy, they don’t produce a product,” Altizer noted. “And if they don’t produce a product, they’re an expense. It’s cheaper to keep a dog healthy.”

The company’s website is being updated and will no longer refer to donors being volunteers, he said.

Hale said Altizer seemed eager for advice and she saw no red flags during her visit this summer. Record-keeping seemed solid, she said, and dogs seemed relaxed in their quarters and during blood draws.

“The dogs really can’t put their paw on the paper and agree to their donorship,” she said Thursday. “We have a higher level of responsibility than even the human blood bankers, because we have to really pay attention to making sure the donors are well cared for.”

According to Daphna Nachminovitch, a senior vice president at PETA, the photos showed tattoos on some of the greyhounds that traced them to racetracks in Florida, Texas and Arkansas. Greyhound adoption programs are ready to take the dogs, she said.

“They were born into an industry that’s cruel,” Nachminovitch said. “But even if these animals are going to be kept for being bled and solely for that purpose, at the very least there are minimal standards of sanitation and veterinary care that they are due and are required by law.”

A former employee of the Pet Blood Bank in Texas says this photo shows crated greyhounds awaiting blood draws.

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