Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Meet the Veterinary Specialists: The Epidemiologist

Pet Column for the week of October 11, 2004

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Services - Veterinary Profession

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

Editor's Note: As people have become more health-conscious, and bonds between humans and their pets have deepened, the demand for veterinary specialties such as dermatology, behavior, pathology, and surgery has risen. The following is part of a series exploring these specialties and the University of Illinois veterinarians who practice and teach them.

When your pet gets sick, you want your veterinarian to diagnose the problem and find a treatment that works. When your veterinarian tries to diagnose a disease, she must ask: "What tests can help me accurately identify the problem?" Once a diagnosis is made, you will ask "How serious is this problem? What is likely to happen to my pet? How well do certain drugs and treatments work? How long is my pet likely to live a comfortable, happy life?"

According to Dr. Ronald Smith, veterinary epidemiologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, these questions are best answered through epidemiology, the study of health and disease in populations of animals.

For example, how well a diagnostic test works is ultimately determined through clinical research with real patients. Veterinarians who work directly with patients keep records of the test results and subsequent progress of the patients. Clinical epidemiologists collect this information and analyze it to determine the accuracy of the test.

General practice veterinarians and veterinary clinical epidemiologists work together in many other ways: Veterinarians use epidemiological studies of different species and breeds to define "normal," so they know when something has gone wrong. Veterinarians record information about their patients, such as breed, weight, prior disease history, sex, and neuter/spay status. Epidemiologists can use this information to identify risk factors for certain diseases.

Dr. Smith explains, "The goal of studying populations is to prevent disease spread and illness in individuals."

Analytic epidemiology, the collection and analysis of surveillance data of healthy populations, serves as radar for increases in levels of certain diseases. If general practitioners notice patterns of disease cases that come through their clinics, they can pose vital questions to epidemiologists, leading to study--and ideally prevention--of disease.

This concept of disease prevention applies to human and environmental health as well as animal health. Unbeknownst to much of the pet-owning public, veterinarians, especially epidemiologists, play a vital role in public health. Worldwide concern about zoonoses--diseases transmissible from animals to humans--has sparked an intense interest in veterinary knowledge of disease. Many zoonoses don't affect animals but make humans very ill; these diseases may enter human populations through contact with wildlife or consumption of animal products.

Therefore, veterinary epidemiologists work alongside physicians in government, public health, and environmental health dealing with issues such as food-borne disease and food safety, biosecurity, outbreak investigation, and zoonotic diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow), West Nile virus, SARS, monkeypox, and anthrax. Identifying the history, risk factors, and causes of a disease outbreak can help epidemiologists find connections in disease transmission, and help public health agencies develop effective prevention strategies.

For more information about veterinary epidemiology and other veterinary specialties, visit the American Veterinary Medical Association Web site at and click on "Veterinary Specialty Organizations," or go directly to the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine at