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What is veterinary forensic medicine and why is it important?

Forensic work is a growing area of interest in the profession and requires a different set of skills from routine diagnosis and treatment

23 April 2018, at 8:03pm

The adjective “forensic” is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as meaning “relating to, used in, or connected with a court of law”. Thus, “forensic veterinary medicine” can be considered the “use of veterinary knowledge applied to the purpose of the law”.

Although veterinary surgeons have played a part in such work for many years, it is only in the past decade that the subject has really come into its own, with the appearance of authoritative textbooks (Merck, 2007; Cooper and Cooper, 2007, 2013; Munro and Munro, 2008; Huffman and Wallace, 2013; Bailey, 2016).

There has been a tendency to equate “forensics” with the investigation of alleged cruelty to/abuse of an animal. Forensic veterinary medicine has provided evidence in a wide range of animal-related litigation. It has also been employed in the context of activities such as insurance claims, appearances at tribunals, inquiries, environmental impact assessments and defending or propounding allegations of professional misconduct or other disciplinary measures.

Examination of a shed skin from a python using transillumination; the snake was believed to have contributed to the death of a young man
Examination of a shed skin from a python using transillumination; the snake was believed to have contributed to the death of a young man
When investigating incidents of “wildlife crime”, the veterinarian may need to examine snares, nets and traps
When investigating incidents of “wildlife crime”, the veterinarian may need to examine snares, nets and traps

The importance of greater veterinary involvement in forensic work was first strongly emphasised in the UK in papers directed primarily at members of the profession (Chapman, 1986; Cooper and Cooper, 1991). Soon after, the UK’s Forensic Science Service (now, alas, disbanded) established a unit devoted to analysing animal DNA and at about the same time, numerous small laboratories, in the UK and elsewhere, began to develop and advertise an “animal forensics” capability. Interest among veterinary schools is growing: last year, the University of Surrey launched a dedicated veterinary forensic pathology and science service.

Key features of veterinary forensic medicine

There are three main ways in which animals are involved in litigation:

  1. As the cause of an incident – animals of different species, singly or in groups, can cause injuries, death and financial loss
  2. As the victim – if they are killed, injured, poached, exported illegally or treated inhumanely
  3. In providing information that is relevant to an incident – for example, because an animal was present when a crime was committed

In circumstances where the animal is the victim (the most usual reason for a veterinary involvement), legal cases generally fall into four categories:

  1. The animal has died under unusual, unexpected or suspicious circumstances and is investigated with a view to determining the circumstances – that is, the cause, mechanism and manner – of death
  2. The animal is alive but exhibits unusual, unexpected or suspicious clinical signs or is injured or incapacitated under unusual or suspicious circumstances
  3. The animal’s welfare apparently is, or has been, compromised. In these cases there is a need to determine whether an animal is being (or has been) subjected to unnecessary pain, suffering, discomfort or distress
  4. A non-domesticated animal appears to have been taken, killed or kept in captivity unlawfully – a form of “wildlife crime”

Dealing with a forensic case that involves animals can involve a variety of techniques:

  • Examination and assessment of the alleged crime and the interviewing of people who are, or are believed to be, involved in the incident or may have relevant information
  • Examination of live animals
  • Examination of dead animals
  • Examination of the environment
  • Collection and identification of specimens, including derivatives and samples, for laboratory testing
  • Correct storage and despatch of specimens for laboratory testing and presentation of evidence
  • Laboratory tests
  • Production of report(s)
  • Appearance in court
  • Retention of reference material for further court proceedings or for reference

The provision of forensic evidence must be scientific and objective in the recognition that, ultimately, it is likely to be presented in a report and, if in court, must be in accordance with the rules of procedure of that court.

It is important to note that, whatever the context, forensic veterinary work differs in many ways from routine diagnosis and treatment and requires in particular a combination of in-depth investigation, strict adherence to protocols and standard procedures and a degree of lateral thinking (Cooper and Cooper, 2016).