Many of us enjoy watching television shows such as CSI where clever forensic scientists are involved in solving crimes. Forensic veterinary science is a growing field where specially trained veterinarians investigate animal-related crimes such as cruelty or neglect, or even dog-fighting situations. Their roles include examining live pets for signs of injuries and working out what may have caused them, as well as performing necropsies on deceased victims.
When an offense against pets is investigated, the animal forensic team starts at the scene, just like in cases of crimes against humans. The pets are examined where they live so that scientists can look at their housing or shelter situation and their food and water supply. Depending on their condition, they are then taken to veterinary hospitals or animal shelters for further evaluation. Each individual pet is photographed, undergoes a full physical examination, and has blood taken for testing. Some pets may be in such a poor condition that veterinarians feel the best course of action is to euthanize them. Deceased pets have a necropsy performed; in all cases, a comprehensive medical report is written.
Many of the scientific techniques used in human crime labs can be used in pets. For example, blood splatter, bone identification, and forensic entomology (the use of insects such as flies to assist in crime investigations) all play a role in working out what has happened in a case of animal cruelty.
The University of California, Davis, has a dedicated animal crime lab. Their services are available to law enforcement agencies as well as the general public. They recognize that pets can be the victim, perpetrator, or witness to a crime.
- Animal victims are easily identified. They include those that are neglected or abused, or even those stolen from their pet parents.
- Perpetrators are pets that are responsible for crimes, such as dogs that attack or those that cause accidents or property damage.
- Pets are considered to be "witnesses" to a crime when they can link a potential suspect to the scene of a crime or to a human victim through DNA, hair, or body fluids.
Because of the growth in the field, the University of Florida now offers a Graduate Certificate and a Master's Degree in Veterinary Forensic Sciences. This allows scientists and licensed veterinarians to study and gain further qualifications in the field so that they are better able to investigate crimes against pets.
While it's very important to identify when a pet has been abused, it's just as important to recognize when false claims are made. It's possible that a vexatious neighbor may accuse someone of animal cruelty and it is up to the veterinary forensic scientists to evaluate the pet, the environment, and statements from potential witnesses to decide if a crime has actually been committed.
Veterinary forensic science would be a difficult and emotionally draining line of work for veterinarians who love animals and hate to see them suffer. However, there would be great satisfaction in seeing justice for abused and neglected pets. Their work is also of importance because research suggests that those who are violent towards pets are also violent towards people. Identification of young people with a tendency towards animal abuse may prevent them from committing offenses against people in the future.