Kitty Blood Donors Save Plunging Pets

Every year, in a phenomenon known as 'high-rise syndrome,' scores of urban cats -- going for a pigeon or a leaf -- jump to their deaths. The lucky ones, who suffer only broken bones and internal injuries, are rushed to Bergh Memorial Hospital in New York City, where they can often be saved by a unique blood donation program.

"Cats don't always land on their feet," said Louise Murray, a veterinarian and medical director at the Upper East Side hospital affiliated with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "They have not evolved to jump from higher than a tree -- about 20 feet."

Cats have now surpassed dogs as America's favorite pet, and their owners take their health care seriously. Bergh's pristine facilities, which include an adoption center and high-tech surgical equipment worthy of television's "ER"set, treat about 20,000 animals a year -- mostly cats and dogs, but some ferrets, rabbits and an occasional rogue chicken brought in by animal control officers.

More urban pet owners who live in small spaces choose cats. And, said Murray, for many New Yorkers, cats are their babies. "Cats are like children for empty nesters, single career women and women who have delayed having children."

The average Bergh medical bill is nothing to scratch at: Lifesaving measures can run into the thousands of dollars for dialysis and other medical interventions. One unit of blood from a commercial bank can cost up to $190. The hospital performed 88 feline transfusions last year as a result of skyscraper plunges, infections and blood loss in surgery.

Cats may have nine lives, but don't have the same kind of blood as their domesticated counterpart, the dog. Cat blood can only be stored about 30 days, then must be thrown away. Most hospitals rely on blood banks, but few owners have their animals tested for blood type and an incompatible transfusion can cause a hasty demise.

For the last 18 months, Bergh has promoted feline blood donation, unique in New York City, seeking owners willing to turn their tabby into a guinea pig. About 12 enthusiastic pet owners participate. New York may be "stuffed with cats," said Murray, but only one-third of all cats qualify to donate, and the blood shortage is real.

At least once a week, the hospital treats cats that leap off Manhattan's roof decks and out unscreened windows. City landlords only require apartment dwellers to install window guards if they have children.

"Cats are unable to resist movement -- any kind," said Murray. "Nearly every day, a cat slips through the window bars. A leaf or a bird flies by and there is nothing in their institutional make-up to tell them not to jump. But we only see the ones that live."

Murray's assistant, Michelle Falcon, never lets the cat get her tongue when she gives her impassioned plea to negligent cat owners. All too often what the owners drag in after a fall is "not pretty," she said. In one case, a kitty slipped off a five-story patio and broke his jaw bone and front legs.

"A lot of cats do survive if there is medical treatment," Falcon said. "But there is a certain height zone that is deadly."

One sad, white feline slipped through the window bars of his owner's apartment and, for days, roamed the streets. Curiosity nearly killed that cat. "When he finally returned home, he had picked up a severe flea infestation and anemia," said Falcon. "He was on death's door."

Just one day earlier, Falcon added, the hospital had found a donor and luckily, "it allowed the cat to hold on long enough to be treated for the anemia."

For the pet who donates, the procedure is not exactly the cat's meow. A fairly small animal, the cat can only give a small amount of blood -- about three or four tablespoons.

Dogs, on the other hand, produce more: One greyhound can produce enough blood to help four chihuahuas or three or four beagles. Canine blood donation is more costly, though, so Bergh limits its programs to cats.

Most animal hospitals receive their blood from commercial banks, but veterinarians do not always know the blood type of the recipient.

Giving a dog or cat the wrong blood is like "Russian roulette," said Murray. Cats have only two blood types and they are incompatible. "If a cat is given the wrong kind of blood," Murray added, "it will die immediately. You do it once with a dog, and it's okay."

To qualify as a donor, a cat must first undergo thorough medical testing for blood cell counts, organ function and most importantly, the presence of infectious diseases like leukemia and FIV (feline AIDS), among others.

Tests on the donor take time to come back from the lab, and the hospital cannot rely on "random strays" that make their way to their adoption center.

Giving blood can be traumatic for a cat under 10 pounds or older than 10 years. The procedure itself, though not painful, is no romp in the litter box: Doctors mildly sedate the cat, then insert a catheter in the jugular vein to draw blood.

"For most cats, it's just an annoyance," Murray said. "First, there's the car trip to the hospital, then they are handled by strangers. But we're very, very careful."

The benefits for the cat donor are nothing to scratch at: free check ups, yearly vaccinations, blood testing -- about $500 worth of medical services a year. The cat also receives a microchip, embedded with a code number for tracking through a pet registry.

Basha, a five-year-old Siamese mix, has donated his blood twice. His owner, Jamie Bean, said she was compelled to help other cats. The first cat that was transfused with Basha's blood eventually died of leukemia. The second, a sickly stray kitten named Cinnamon, was resuscitated and lived to be adopted.

Purred Bean, "When I brought Basha back home, I told him he was a hero."

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