CSI for Animals: Veterinary Forensics

May 29, 2012

Veterinary forensics can involve an animal being the victim or an animal being the perpetrator.

You’ve watched crime scene investigation reality shows on TV, but have you ever thought about CSI for animals?

Dr. Adam Stern, a board-certified veterinary pathologist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory in Urbana, has a special interest in veterinary forensics and shares some CSI secrets.

Veterinary forensics can involve an animal being the victim, such as in a case of animal abuse or neglect, or an animal being the perpetrator. Forensic scientists, including veterinarians, entomologists, and toxicologists, may aid police in an investigation or be called as expert witnesses in criminal cases, civil cases, malpractice hearings, and insurance claims.

They can be called to examine animals directly involved in a crime. Most commonly, they are presented with cases of animal neglect and suspected poisonings. Other situations where veterinary forensics is involved include animal hording cases and dog fighting cases.

“One of the most important responsibilities of forensic veterinary pathologists is to determine the cause of death or cause of injuries,” says Dr. Stern. “We play a role in helping investigators and police to corroborate findings and ultimately to determine the cause of death or injury, subsequently allowing the investigators to decide whether or not prosecution is warranted.”

It is not uncommon to be presented with an animal in which starvation is suspected. “My role as a pathologist is to rule in or rule out if there is any other possible cause that may have resulted in the animal’s emaciated appearance,” says Dr. Stern.

For every case–not just starvation–it is imperative to investigate all possibilities that would result in the pathologic changes the animal displays; failure to do so could lead to weaknesses in the case and could potentially result in wrongful convictions or lack of conviction for a guilty party.

Many different disciplines aside from veterinary medicine can be involved in forensics work, including entomology and ballistics. For example, knowing the life cycle of insects can help determine the death interval of the animal. Ballistic experts can help figure out the type of weapon used and ultimately determine if the bullet was shot from a specific gun. It may also be necessary to know weather patterns, such as the potential for lightning strikes. Paw print examination and DNA evaluation have also been used to help analyze evidence and provide accurate identification when a body is badly decomposed.

Animal forensics is a relatively new and little-known field, but the field of forensics has been around for a long time. Veterinary pathologists as well as other forensic scientists can play a vital role in helping aid the field of veterinary forensics.

Brittany Way Rose