It’s springtime, which means cats are falling from the sky. As high-rise residents open their windows to let in fresh air, cats invariably fall out, and landing feet-first is little help from the 10th story.
“Please get some screens, people!” says Louise Murray, director of medicine at the Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital.
Murray says the number of injured cats goes way up with the good weather, putting a strain on one of the most perishable supplies at animal hospitals: cat blood.
Several large companies supply the stuff, and charge up to $180 per unit. “Cat blood can be on back order for weeks,” Murray says. “It’s like being on a list for an organ.”
Cat blood can only be stored for a short time—30 days at the longest—and comes in two types, A and B. Tranfusing the wrong kind is almost always fatal.
So to have enough of each type on hand, Bergh encourages local pet owners to bring in their pets in a public donation program.
Because they’re small, felines can only donate small quantities—four tablespoons total, about the amount of a small espresso—and that’s only enough to save one cat life. (A greyhound can safely donate enough to give to four Chihuahuas.)
Nurse Michelle Falcon, the blood bank coordinator, screens prospective donors. She looks for young, fat, lethargic indoor cats; sticking a needle in the jugular, even with sedation, is not for every animal. After a battery of blood tests to ensure a feline is free of anemia, bacteria, and other viruses like FIV—commonly known as Feline AIDS—a cat is approved and put on the donor list. Bergh only has 12 regular donors; the hospital wants more. “People just don’t think about it,” says Falcon. “They don’t realize cats need blood transfusions too.”
Another hospital in the city, Animal Medical Center, also has problems staying stocked, but keeps its own supply of donors on hand, 20 cats, all abandoned by former owners. Once fully screened, the cats give blood once every six weeks. After two years of service, the hospital puts the felines up for adoption. “There’s a lovely lady who plays with them and feeds them and takes them out,” assures an anxious-sounding spokesman for the hospital.
Besides a nice little shaved square on the neck, which Falcon calls “the badge of honor,” donor cats get some other perks. “They get something yummy and fishy when they wake up,” says Falcon. Pet parents get incentives, too: Donor cats at Bergh get free check-ups, vaccinations, and blood tests. Owners can also get their cats microchipped, to help locate them if they run away.
But it’s not the freebies that persuaded Jaime-Faye Bean to volunteer her 11-pound cat, Basha, to donate blood (his little sister, Booma, weighing in at seven pounds, didn’t make the cut). Bean said she does it because she likes knowing that her cat has done something good for felinekind. One time Basha’s blood was used for a kitten undergoing chemotherapy. The cancer sufferer didn’t make it, but another unit of Basha’s blood saved a starved kitten, which was rescued by humane law-enforcement officers on the Animal Precinct television show. “I think it’s great,” says Bean. “He’s helping other cats.”
The process only takes an hour from start to finish, with the cat knocked out cold from a light dose of anesthesia. The effects wear off quickly. “He might be a little tired,” Bean says of Basha, “but when I get him home, he bounces right back.”
Meanwhile, as spring temperatures continue to rise outside and inside the hospital, there is only one satchel of cat blood left in the basement-level cooler. “I’m running low on my stores,” Falcon says as she sits, waiting in the donation room for a fat orange cat named Brier to show.