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Veterinary forensics: more than ‘animal CSI’
  1. David Bailey

Abstract

Veterinary forensics is a new and emerging field of veterinary medicine. David Bailey, who recently developed a postgraduate training programme in the subject, outlines what the work involves

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I AM one of two qualified forensic vets in the UK with a degree in veterinary science and a Masters in human forensic science. As there was a dearth of veterinary forensics courses, and realising that this was an area of expertise that needed filling, I developed and constructed a veterinary forensics and law training programme for vets. So, as well as offering a forensic veterinary service to vets, solicitors and forensic consultancies, I also provide training in the field of veterinary forensics and law leading to a postgraduate qualification – the General Practitioner Certificate in Forensics and Law – which is run in conjunction with Improve International and the European School of Veterinary Postgraduate Studies.

Knowledge and training in this area allows vets to comment upon and give advice on legal matters and disputes involving animals and their derivatives in a professional and accurate manner.

What do forensic vets do?

Work and training in the field of forensic medicine is structured for two groups of vets:

(1) Those involved in animal cruelty work for local councils, the police or the RSPCA. Their skills can be used in work as a prosecution expert or a defence expert – forensics does not discriminate between the two. Animal welfare and cruelty cases require thoughtful consideration on behalf of the prosecution and the defence teams. Solicitors on both sides will invariably want to instruct a vet with a view to providing an opinion or report. This instruction requires a vet to write a report and possibly testify in court. Forensics involves the application of your veterinary knowledge and experience to this process and to assist in the resolution of the legal dispute.

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(2) Vets with recognised clinical qualifications in an area of veterinary science, who wish to enhance their revenue from this specialism by applying it to court cases. Such vets can use forensics to provide an income by using their existing specialism in a non-clinical setting. Cases involving malpractice or veterinary medicinal product knowledge through to postmortem examination and pathology findings all require vets who are knowledgeable in their field of expertise, but also in the application of their field to the legal matter involved. Many vets have first-hand knowledge of the former, but lack training in the latter.

Vets with specialisms are now starting to find that, with it being easy to disseminate photos and documents (evidence) to comment upon, a substantial amount of work can be done from home using a computer. Reports written by forensic vets are usually charged at rates that begin at £120 an hour, and can be quite a useful form of income derived from home working.

Veterinary forensics provides an opportunity to be able to comment upon an area of experience, competence and knowledge, and to use that to assist in the resolution of legal disputes. A vet based in rural Shropshire with a recognised qualification in skin disorders, for example, may be asked by the RSPCA in, say, Kent, to provide an opinion on a case that involves an allegation of cruelty (using photographs of skin and lab reports, plus a report written by the seizing officer). Using the information provided, the vet produces his or her own report, which is e-mailed back.

Another vet based in Scotland may be asked to provide an opinion on an orthopaedic procedure in a dog that was operated upon in Ireland. After examining photographs and reports from other experts, the reporting vet may find that the operation was carried out well and there is no criticism to be accepted.

Vets with qualifications or competence beyond their veterinary degree are now using these postgraduate skills and experiences forensically, not just clinically. Forensics can be used to defend other vets from malicious malpractice claims or to prosecute a pet owner who left a dog in a hot car, or to comment on the sale, supply and distribution of veterinary medicines brought into the UK from the EU.

I have been involved in cases ranging from sexual assault on a dog to the illegal hunting of deer, and I was recently asked to provide opinion on a case that involved the importation of £6 million worth of veterin-ary medicines into the UK.

Having more vets trained in veterinary forensic science would help to improve and standardise the high-quality veterinary expert opinion that is available, and offer vets the opportunity to work from home.

As well as training other vets, and being involved in cases in the UK and internationally, I write for various veterinary publications on veterinary forensics; I lecture on the topic, and assist other vets whose advice is sought on a forensic matter who require guidance and advice on report writing, media and courtroom skills as well as their professional obligations.

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