Veterinary Forensics: When Crimes Involve Animals

[radiograph of a dog with a bullet in its shoulder]

Veterinary forensics is a growing field

A forensic pathologist is a physician who specializes in determining the time, manner, and cause of death. Dr. Adam Stern, a board-certified pathologist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, specializes in veterinary forensics.

“In veterinary forensics, medical expertise is used to gather evidence applicable in civil and criminal court cases, as well as insurance company investigations, that involve animals,” says Dr. Stern.

Animal Crime Investigation

He says that animals may play one of three roles: the victim, the perpetrator, or a witness.

[emaciated horse]
Evidence, such as this photo of an emaciated horse and the radiograph above showing a bullet lodged in the shoulder of a dog, is crucial in the field of veterinary forensics.
All too frequently, heartbreaking cases of animal abuse and neglect, where animals are victims, grab the headlines. In these situations, Dr. Stern may be asked to perform a forensic necropsy on a deceased animal to verify cause of death and may be asked to testify in court regarding the findings.

Cases in which animals are perpetrators of the crime, such as dog bite cases, are also widely publicized.

Dr. Stern recalls an unusual and complicated case that occurred in 2015 in Casey, Ill., where a dog was both a victim and, technically, a perpetrator.

“The crime involved homicide, animal cruelty, and arson. The criminal who committed the crime was bitten by the dog. DNA evaluation of the blood of the criminal that was spilled at the scene, eventually helped lead to a conviction,” says Dr. Stern.

In certain instances, animals can also serve as witnesses to crimes. Typically this scenario plays out when animal fur provides evidence linking the perpetrator to the crime.

According to Dr. Stern, the most famous animal witness may be Snowball, the cat in a 1994 homicide case on Prince Edward Island, Canada. This case marked the first time animal DNA was presented in a court of law. Hairs from Snowball, the family cat, were found on discarded clothing and helped link the killer to the victim.

Veterinary Forensics Advances

“While veterinary forensics is not yet as standardized as human forensics, it continues to develop and gain recognition every day,” says Dr. Stern. “Those of us in this profession are committed to advancing the science.”

Dr. Stern is contributing to this effort. He coauthored Veterinary Forensics: Investigation, Evidence Collection and Expert Testimony, a textbook that was published in March by CRC Press. (Watch an interview with Dr. Stern on ciLiving:

“We designed the book to be used by attorneys, law enforcement, veterinarians, students, or anyone else who wants to learn about veterinary forensics. The book provides basics that would be useful to non-scientists, but also goes into detail that will be interesting to those with a science and medicine background,” explains Dr. Stern.

The book presents ideas from the perspectives of professionals in law enforcement, veterinary medicine, and the judicial system. Its topics range from DNA analysis and the forensic necropsy (or, animal autopsy) of small and large animal species to agroterrorism, animal hoarding, and animal fighting. Given Dr. Stern’s area of expertise, he was eager to give the discipline of pathology more emphasis than had previous forensics textbooks.

Dr. Stern predicts, “Veterinary forensics is a growing field, with a lot more to come. I am not sure where it is going, but there is a big group of us taking it somewhere. Stay tuned.”

By Hannah Beers