Black Bear Yearling Receives New Lease on Life

First black bear blood transfusion at UTCVM

Dr. Ed Ramsay (left), senior veterinary student Elizabeth Franklin (center) and Dr. Julie Sheldon, (right) monitor Summitt, a black bear yearling, during a blood transfusion at the veterinary medical center at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine (UTCVM). The procedure was the first bear blood transfusion performed at the facility. Photo courtesy UTIA. Download image​.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn - Clinicians at the veterinary medical center at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine (UTCVM) performed the facility’s first bear blood transfusion Tuesday afternoon. Monday night, Appalachian Bear Rescue (ABR) transported a black bear yearling that had been rescued by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to UTCVM on the UT Institute of Agriculture campus. While a healthy yearling would have spent the winter in a den with its mother, this bear was found at a farm near Bristol, Tennessee. This is bear number 258 for ABR and their first one in 2017. The rescue has nicknamed the yearling 'Summitt' in honor of the late Pat Summitt, the former UT Lady Vols basketball coach.

After sedating the yearling, veterinarians performed a physical exam and drew a blood sample to examine his blood cells, electrolytes and organ function. The yearling, which weighed 23 pounds, was extremely thin and profoundly anemic with a red blood cell concentration of six percent compared to a normal 35-45 percent. Without a transfusion, the cub would likely die.

Working with the curators of the bear habitat at Zoo Knoxville, Dr. Ed Ramsay, UTCVM Professor of Zoological Medicine, and Dr. Julie Sheldon, Zoological Medicine intern, collected blood from Finn, a black bear at the zoo.  Named for the town of Fincastle, Virginia, in the county where he was found, Finn came to Knoxville Zoo from the Wildlife Center of Virginia (WCV) in 2014, where he became a perfect companion for another young orphaned male, Monty. Finn had recently undergone his annual physical exam, and his bloodwork was normal, which made him an ideal donor candidate.

Summitt was given almost 300 ml of blood. “Anytime we do a blood transfusion with any animal, there’s always the 
potential for a reaction where the body attacks the new cells,” explained Dr. Sheldon. “During the transfusion, we monitor the recipient’s temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate.”

Following the transfusion, Summitt’s red blood cell concentration was at 16 percent. While the level isn’t ideal, the yearling should feel better. Coy Blair, ABR Lead Curator, will take the cub back to the rescue. “We will put him in our cub nursery,” says Blair. “It’s a smaller pen near the office with controlled temperature and a webcam, so we can keep a close eye on him.” Since the yearling is so underweight, Blair will slowly introduce food back into Summitt’s diet to prevent refeeding syndrome, which can be fatal.

While the blood transfusion was successful, Summitt isn’t out of the woods yet. “The problem is we don’t know the underlying cause of his current condition. In other words, we don’t have a diagnosis so it’s hard to give a prognosis,” says Dr. Ramsay. “We are hopeful he will begin eating, gaining weight and progressively act more normal. We hope to know more over the next week or so.”

ABR cares for orphaned and injured black bear cubs for return to their natural wild habitat; increases public awareness about coexisting with black bears; and studies all aspects of returning cubs to the wild.

One of 30 veterinary colleges in the United States, the
UT College of Veterinary Medicine educates students in the art and science of veterinary medicine and related biomedical sciences, promotes scientific research and enhances human and animal well-being.

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Sandra Harbison, 865-974-7377,