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California’s canine blood banks harvest from caged dogs and operate in secrecy

When Robyn Black rushed her beloved corgi Winston to a veterinary hospital in Sacramento, she told the staff to do whatever it took to heal her pup as an autoimmune disease threatened his life.

Winston needed several blood transfusions, but after two days of treatment, the veterinary hospital ran out of the canine lifeline. Pet hospitals often are short on dog blood amid a national shortage that lawmakers say is further exacerbated in California by the state’s restrictive laws that require veterinarians to buy dog blood solely from two blood banks, which operate in virtual secrecy.

“He died right there,” said Black, a well-known Capitol lobbyist. “Back then, I didn’t know how the animal blood supply worked.”

In fact, very little is known about the operations of animal blood banks in California, and that’s on purpose. California cloaks the state’s two licensed animal blood banks — both privately owned and commercially operated — with sweeping exemptions from public records laws, with the state allowing the facilities to craft their own standards on how animals are cared for and then keeping all records under seal.

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What is known is this: California’s two canine blood banks each use hundreds of dogs, which are kept caged in donor colonies, for the sole purpose of drawing their blood every 10 to 14 days. Animal rights groups have accused these facilities of mistreating the donor dogs, but those claims are difficult to verify given the secrecy in which the blood banks operate.

California is the only state in the country that limits veterinarian hospitals to purchasing lifesaving blood supplies from companies that house dogs and cats this way.

Other states allow donor colonies, but they also permit community donor programs in which pet owners voluntarily bring dogs or cats to a veterinarian to donate blood, which is then sold to veterinarians.

The operators of the two animal blood banks in California — Hemopet and Animal Blood Bank Resources International — say housing colonies of donor dogs, as required by the state, ensures a regular supply of safe blood for veterinarians. The owner of the facility in Garden Grove, Hemopet, said she has more than 200 greyhounds, former racing dogs shipped in from states including Florida, being housed for their blood. Greyhounds make up the bulk of blood donors at these facilities because of their generally docile temperament and their “universal” blood type, which can be used to treat any breed.

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Animal Blood Bank Resources International, based in Dixon, has not disclosed where its donor dogs are kept or how many animals it has, which is allowed because of the state’s public records exemption. Calls requesting interviews with representatives at both facilities were not returned.

Critics argue it’s inhumane to cage an animal in order to habitually draw its blood, with animal welfare groups saying California is an outlier in requiring veterinarians to purchase animal blood solely from warehoused dogs.

In Winston’s case, the nearby UC Davis veterinary blood bank had its own supply. But because it does not own and house the donor dogs on site, the renowned pet hospital is barred by state law from providing blood to other hospitals. Instead, the blood collected there can only be used on its own patients. Several times a month, the lifesaving platelets and red blood cells processed there expire on their shelves, even as the state experiences a dog blood shortage and nearby pet hospitals scramble for supplies.

The blood collected at the hospital can only be used on its patients.

Black said by the time she realized she would have to drive Winston to the UC Davis Veterinary Hospital, it was too late.

“I was on the phone with them when he went into cardiac arrest,” said Black, who broke into tears recalling the moment.

“For anyone who argues the current system is working, I’d be happy to take you to Winston’s grave,” Black said. “Tell me how the current system works well.”

California began licensing animal blood and other biologic products in 1974 following the deadly outbreak of the bird virus known as virulent Newcastle disease, according to a legislative analysis. At the time, using colonies of dogs was seen as the safest way to limit a donor’s exposure to diseases that could be deadly to a recipient patient.

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Animal welfare groups say thriving programs across the country that use household pets show that’s no longer the case.

Now lawmakers are taking another look at the state’s restrictive dog donor laws. Senate Bill 202 by Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita), would allow for veterinary hospitals to accept blood from donation banks that use household pets brought in by their owners. The bill would also eliminate most of the public records exemption for animal blood banks.

A competing bill that stalled, from Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), would have allowed blood donations from household pets and phased out the use of commercial facilities where dogs are kept solely as blood suppliers. That bill died because of opposition from the California Veterinary Medical Assn., said animal lobbyist Jennifer Fearing, who had worked on it.

The veterinary association supports Wilk’s bill to allow blood banks to use community-sourced dogs for donations. Eliminating the use of company-owned donor dogs could create a massive blood shortage that would put the injured and sick animals pet doctors care for at risk, the veterinary group argued.

Veterinarians already have a difficult time obtaining enough blood for their canine patients. The need for dog blood is rising across the country as more pet owners opt to treat injuries and diseases that require blood transfusions.

Elaine Myers, an administrator at Orange County Emergency Pet Clinics Inc., which operates two after-hours pet hospitals, said the shortage had been felt across the state. Despite being near the Garden Grove blood bank, Hemopet, she said there were times when their hospitals simply ran out of blood.

Myers said when pet hospitals in California buy blood, they know it’s a safe product because of the way the state requires the animals to be kept separate from potential infectious diseases.

“You don’t have the time or ability to test blood in an emergency,” Myers said. “Safety is the most important thing we are concerned about. If a dog has been hit by a car and is bleeding out, we need that blood immediately.”

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The two commercial blood banks in California are inspected once a year by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, but all records related to those visits are exempt from disclosure. The facilities are required to have adoption programs for dogs no longer being used as blood donors, but those records also are shielded.

The exemption from public records for California’s animal blood banks was created in 2002. It was included in a bill from then-Sen. Sheila Kuehl that sought, for the first time, to have annual inspections by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The blood bank industry opposed Kuehl’s bill, arguing that the inspections would impede their operations and result in a reduced blood supply. Animal Blood Bank Resources International paid lobbyists $63,000 in 2002 to oppose Kuehl’s bill, according to lobbying disclosures filed with the secretary of state.

During negotiations, the blood bank industry was able to successfully add the public records exemption, arguing that it needed the disclosure protection to avoid becoming a target of animal rights organizations.

Kuehl, now on the L.A. Board of Supervisors, said through a spokeswoman she did not recall the bill or why the public records exemption was added.

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California News Publishers Assn., which advocates for open record laws, said the animal blood bank exemption was one of the most restrictive he had encountered. It provides more protection from public disclosure than afforded law enforcement officers in the state, he said.

“I don’t know how we missed this,” Ewert said.

With the exemption in place, animal welfare groups say the two dog blood companies have been able to operate in the shadows. Attempts to reach Scott Horner, owner of Animal Blood Resources International, were unsuccessful.

Hemopet owner Jean Dodds also did not respond to a request to comment. Dodds, however, wrote in a letter to lawmakers that her company provides a vital service in the state, saying 40% of its dog blood supply goes to California veterinarians. She added in the letter that, along with Animal Blood Resources International, the two produce 80% of the nation’s dog blood supply, a claim that could not be independently verified. She wrote that the 200-plus greyhounds at Hemopet are used as donors for no more than a year before being put up for adoption.

That timeline contradicted reports that Dodds voluntarily shared with lawmakers — following an investigation by the California Department of Food and Agriculture — that showed some dogs were donors for closer to two years.

The Food and Agriculture Department investigation was initiated after allegations by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The animal rights group alleged last year that its undercover operation had found that Hemopet bled sickly dogs and that the animals were kept in small crates for 23 hours a day.

Dodds disputed the allegations to lawmakers and released a portion of the Food and Agriculture investigative report, which did not support PETA’s allegations. The department said because of the public records exemption it could not review the documents to ensure their accuracy or provide the pages Dodds did not include.

“I think regardless of whether you believe PETA’s claims or not, those are beside the point at some level,” said Fearing, the lobbyist who was working on the stalled attempt to phase out the use of facilities like Hemopet. “Even if they were run to perfect standards, should California be kenneling dogs for the purpose of taking their blood to help other dogs?”

melody.gutierrez@latimes.com

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