Veterinary forensics comes of age

New master's degree, pathology fellowship advance young discipline

October 11, 2023 (published)
ASPCA photo
Students were tested on documenting suspected animal cruelty during a 2021 training at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' Animal Recovery Center in New York City. The ASPCA runs veterinary forensic training programs around the country and has helped launch master's degree programs in veterinary forensics at two Florida universities.

This is the first of two parts. Read part 2.

When Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore flew to Florida in January to speak at a veterinary conference, she checked two suitcases packed with the bones of nine unidentified dogs. She calls them Dogs Doe.

A veterinary forensics investigator in Boston, Smith-Blackmore planned while in the Sunshine State to make a stop at a diagnostic laboratory operated by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. There, a forensic anthropologist would use the bones to identify the dogs' ages at the time of death and check for signs of trauma or disease.

"I didn't want to mail my bones," she said. "But I pity the [airport] safety examiners watching those bags go through their X-ray."

Smith-Blackmore collected the skeletal remains last year after being hired by the police department in a small Massachusetts town to search the property where a breeder suspected of cruelty had lived. She sent some of the teeth to the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine for DNA typing, and she has been swabbing for DNA samples from live dogs known to have been purchased or rescued from the breeder to identify connections.

Even as she plays a key role in an ongoing investigation, Smith-Blackmore has returned to the role of student.

In August, she joined a group of three veterinarians and a 19-year-old aspiring forensic science professional who comprise the inaugural class of Florida International University's (FIU) master’s degree program in veterinary forensic science investigation.

Veterinary forensics deploys veterinary medicine to investigate possible crimes against animals, such as abuse and neglect. It encompasses analyzing crime scenes, performing necropsies (sometimes called animal autopsies), examining live victims, documenting evidence and testifying as an expert witness.

FIU's master's degree program is only the second in the country. The first, a master's in veterinary forensic sciences, was established in 2015 at the University of Florida (UF) College of Veterinary Medicine.

In brief

Smith-Blackmore hardly seems like someone who needs to go back to school. She's worked cases for two decades, co-authored Investigating Animal Abuse Crime Scenes: A Field Guide, which came out in July, and teaches animal law and veterinary forensics at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

She said she signed up for the FIU program in part because "I don't know what I don't know." She also wants to support the ASPCA, which assists law enforcement in New York City and nationwide with animal cruelty investigations and is providing financial and teaching support to the new program.

Smith-Blackmore is typical of the first wave of veterinarians who helped establish the discipline and give it a name. They developed the requisite skills, often from investigators in law enforcement, as situations required. They continue to expand their know-how even as they create the educational programs, define the standards, drive the research and work the cases that push the field forward.

A little more than 15 years after the first veterinary forensics textbooks were published, the field has gone from ad hoc and dispersed to organized and regularized. It now comprises two international associations, a peer-reviewed journal and scores of studies, investigative consultancies, specialized analytics laboratories and myriad training opportunities for veterinary professionals, law enforcement, lawyers, animal welfare professionals and the public.

Smith-Blackmore sees the field poised to become stronger, spurred in part by younger generations brought up on true crime podcasts and TV shows like CSI and Unsolved Mysteries and with a strong commitment to animal welfare. Her recent and current veterinary students, she said, are "more concerned with what we're doing to our environment and how we treat one another and how we treat animals."

'Not just a kitten'

The mere existence of veterinary forensics is predicated on the demand for it, and for most of the past century, the demand wasn't there.

As a young practitioner in Casper, Wyoming, in the 1980s, Dr. Sean McDonough occasionally conducted necropsies for medicolegal death investigations. Those cases didn't always end as he'd hoped.

Photo by Julie Stern
Randall Lockwood, a consultant on policy, response and engagement at the ASPCA, has been directly involved in many animal cruelty investigations. His interest in forensic sciences began in childhood. Enthralled with The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, he made plaster casts of footprints and dusted his home for fingerprints.

"Forty years ago, judges would say, 'I'm not going to ruin your life over a kitten.' They would reduce charges, or they might even dismiss charges," he recounted. "Well, no judge is going to say that nowadays because they have had enough training to understand that it's not just a kitten."

That change of perspective comes from a growing body of data that animal abuse often occurs in tandem with or as a precursor to crimes against people, especially domestic violence and child abuse. The relationship is sometimes simply called "The Link."

One upshot is that investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty is now widely understood as a way to help people, too.

"One of the reasons why law enforcement started taking animal cruelty more seriously is the fact that the perpetrators of these crimes are people usually we really need to be concerned about," said Randall Lockwood, one of the many non-veterinarians who helped establish veterinary forensics as a discipline.

Trained as a comparative and physiological psychologist, Lockwood channeled an early interest in humane education and animal-human interaction into a four-decade career in animal welfare, including direct involvement in many animal cruelty investigations for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and ASPCA.

"We went from having, when I first started in animal protection in '84, four states where animal cruelty could be considered a felony crime. Now, it's every state. That was a dramatic change that took place during the '80s and into the early '90s," he said. "Partly it was driven by the increasing strength of the animal movement, the growth of the HSUS and ASPCA and to some extent PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals]."

Lockwood said the term veterinary forensics likely was coined 30 years ago by Dr. John Cooper and his attorney wife Margaret Cooper, who together wrote articles and books about the use of forensic science in animal cases starting in the 1990s.

The term came into more common parlance in 2006 with the publication of Forensic Investigation of Animal Cruelty, the first U.S. textbook on the subject. Lockwood conceived of the book and recruited as coauthors Drs. Melinda Merck and Leslie Sinclair, who were providing veterinary forensic services in cruelty investigations. Together, they aimed to compile all that was known about how forensic models developed for use in humans could be applied to nonhuman animals.

Veterinary forensics must account for the significant anatomical and physiological differences among the species as well as circumstances unique to certain species, such as cats attacked by coyotes or bite wounds resulting from spontaneous versus organized dog fights.

Milestones in the development of veterinary forensics field in the U.S.

Fast-forward almost 20 years, and veterinary forensic skills are being widely deployed in the field.

"We've seen very successful outcomes through the application of forensic science to animal cases," said Jason Byrd, a forensic entomologist who directs the UF veterinary forensics program. "Successful prosecution rates … are on the rise."

Defining veterinary forensic pathology

Veterinary pathologists have long been charged with trying to determine what caused the death of an animal by examining its organs, tissue and body fluids. Most, however, aren't prepared to translate that training to a legal context. That doesn't always stop them.

McDonough, who worked some cases as a fledgling veterinarian in Wyoming, went on to become board-certified as a pathologist and joined the faculty at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1997. He made a condition of employment that his department take forensic necropsy cases. (At the time, Cornell had no specific policy about such cases.)

"I thought, as a veterinarian, it was important that these cases be investigated, and we do what we can to try and support the prosecution on them," he said recently. "The faculty said, 'Fine, as long as you do them.' I was happy with that because five or six cases a year, that's just not that big of a caseload."

It's grown. McDonough said the department now handles between 130 and 150 cases annually. He mostly oversees the work, and all the pathologists participate.

It was very rare for veterinary schools to take forensic cases 30 years ago, and even today, it's not the rule, according to McDonough. He said some programs are reluctant because the cases require a major time commitment, and sometimes involved veterinarians are called to testify in court, which can be uncomfortable for them. Also, many programs balk because they don't have anyone with formal training in forensic pathology.

"When I started on this, I was self-taught. There was nobody out there that I knew of who was doing forensic pathology work," he said. "I took my training as a veterinarian, the little experience that I had received as a vet student on necropsy, and just started to try and apply it to cases. In the absence of anything else available, I guess that was OK. But I made mistakes, flat out, no question about it. I really didn't understand everything that I needed to."

His mistakes, he said, included having pictures that didn't properly capture the injuries or were too gory to show to a jury; submitting a report that lacked all the details of evidence that helped him arrive at an opinion, and offering an opinion outside his area of expertise.

He added: "We don't want to have everybody go through that same self-training and making all those mistakes."

McDonough formed a committee of veterinary pathologists with forensic experience a decade ago to persuade the American College of Veterinary Pathologists to launch a fellowship to officially recognize board-certified pathologists who have a lot of experience in forensic work and to train other pathologists who want to do forensic pathology, which it did in 2022.

Through the ACVP program, a pathologist can become a fellow in veterinary forensic pathology in either of two ways. Pathologists with extensive experience on medicolegal cases may be considered as founding fellows by submitting a variety of documented cases. So far, eight pathologists have been named as founding fellows, including McDonough. Recruitment continues through the end of 2024.

The other way is through a formal fellowship training program for pathologists with little or no forensic experience. There are two such programs available, at Cornell and UF. The fellowships are on site and can take one to two years.

University of Florida photo by Bernard Brzezinski
Dr. Adam Stern, a veterinary forensic pathologist at the University of Florida, teaches master's degree students how to excavate a clandestine grave.

Dr. Adam Stern, a founding fellow in veterinary forensic pathology and professor at UF, said the fellowship is an important part of getting the field organized.

"There are pathologists who are at the top of the forensic pathology field; they have the most training, the most experience," he said. This can be important in court. A credential like that conferred by the fellowship helps establish the expertise of a witness in the eyes of judges and juries.

Stern described veterinary forensic pathologists as positioned at the pinnacle of a pyramid, above boarded pathologists, followed by pathologists who did a residency but haven't passed their board exam, general practitioners with forensics training and, finally, general practitioners.

Creating this special expertise raises the profile of veterinary forensics and should, in the long run, expand the pool of forensically trained pathologists, Stern predicts.

Codifying the hierarchy, however, could exacerbate hard feelings among veterinarians who feel criticized for doing forensic necropsies at a time when those services are needed. Currently, non-pathologists conduct the vast majority of forensic necropsies, according to McDonough and others.

Dr. Jennifer Woolf, a general practitioner with a master's degree in veterinary forensics, said she and other veterinarians with forensic experience or training have, at times, been told to stay in their lane. She said that while she understands pathologists' desire to clearly distinguish skills and training, this is not the time to shut down colleagues.

"There are not that many veterinary pathologists that have training in forensics," she said. "If we can't find anybody else who's willing to do it, why shouldn't we allow those who are willing?"

Woolf also points out that the hierarchy of qualifications cited by Stern is not a settled matter. Dr. Jason Brooks, another founding fellow in veterinary forensic pathology, ranks clinical veterinarians with training and experience in forensic medicine above board-certified veterinary pathologists without forensic training in a chapter he wrote for Veterinary Forensic Medicine and Forensic Sciences, published in 2020.

Woolf said some pathologists argue the stakes are too high to let non-pathologists do this work. "Somebody's life is on the line in the sense of 'Do they go to jail?' " she said. "I get that; it's a good argument. But a general practitioner with forensics training will not screw up a forensics case any more than a boarded pathologist without forensics training might, and from anecdotal reports, perhaps less."

Woolf said a forensic necropsy is essentially the same as a traditional necropsy, except for the added tasks of thoroughly documenting the process with photos and collecting evidence. A "screw-up" could be anything from something fairly minor, like a blurred photo, to something more major, such as throwing away a collar that had become embedded in a dog's neck. Additionally, a forensic necropsy generally involves full-body postmortem radiographs and skinning the animal, neither of which is typically done with a traditional necropsy.

Educating forensic veterinarians

Sleuthing deaths of unclaimed pets

While pathologists, as a rule, focus on the deceased animal's body, forensic veterinarians often adopt a wider view that takes in crime scenes, live victims and more.

For these veterinarians, training is also on the rise, much of it centered in Florida — starting at UF. In 2012, the school began offering veterinary forensics continuing education courses and a graduate certificate for veterinary students.

"These were in-person workshops and seminars for anyone who wanted to take them," said UF program director Byrd, who helped teach the early classes with Merck and Dr. Rachel Touroo, ASPCA's senior director of veterinary forensics. He said that they were popular from the start.

The program received funding and educator support from the ASPCA.

Responding to public interest, in 2015, UF launched a master's degree for veterinary professionals.

"It's not that they need to boost their veterinary medical knowledge, but they need to know the tie-in to how their medical knowledge is going to work with the legal system," Byrd said. "And that's what they come to us for."

More than 237 students have completed the master's and 115 are currently enrolled.

UF also launched a wildlife forensics master's degree in 2014 that focuses on crimes like poaching, trafficking and illegal hunting.

In 2021, UF and the ASPCA parted ways in what is described by people at both organizations as an amicable split.

"Our goal at the very beginning was to make this a successful and self-sustaining program for students who want to pursue a career in that field, and through this collaboration with UF, I think we were able to do that," said Touroo. "After the nine years, UF was really well positioned to take this on, on their own, and we were well positioned to start another program."

The new program is the FIU master's degree that launched this year.

Both master's programs run for 16 months and can be completed entirely online. Each also offers opportunities for hands-on learning at forensic diagnostic centers.

To reinforce their online instruction, FIU students can take in-person courses at the school's Global Forensic and Justice Center, a teaching and research facility for human-centered and veterinary forensics in Largo. (FIU's main campus is in Miami.) 

They also can do an internship in their last semester at the ASPCA's Veterinary Forensic Sciences Center in Gainesville. Started in 2020, the center bills itself as the first-ever multidisclipinary forensic laboratory for suspected companion animal cruelty cases. It employs four forensic veterinarians, one veterinary technician and two certified crime scene analysts. It offers investigation services, including necropsy, skeletal analysis, live animal forensic examination, animal crime scene response, evacuation and non-animal evidence to law enforcement at no cost.

UF's Gainesville campus is home to the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, a joint initiative of the colleges of medicine, veterinary medicine and liberal arts and sciences. Unlike the ASPCA facility, Maples started in 1999 with a focus on human forensics. Today, it offers diagnostic services on people and non-human animals to law enforcement, attorneys, veterinarians and others at no or low cost.

UF's Byrd says this sort of diagnostic center is distinctly needed by veterinarians.

"If you're a human crime scene analyst, you go to a crime scene, you pack everything in your van, you drive it back to the crime lab," he said. "We're finding that a lot of the vets who do engage in these cases, they come home with evidence, and they don't have the network of people to analyze it for them."

Cruelty cases are not for everyone

Despite the burst of interest in veterinary forensics, or maybe because of it, veterinarians who've worked on animal abuse cases advise intrigued colleagues to approach the subject with caution.

The work can be emotionally and psychologically draining, McDonough at Cornell said, remembering a recent case of a pit bull puppy that had been beaten, shot, starved and poisoned in its 3-month life.

"Anyone who's interested in this field who talks to me, I always tell them that it's great that you have the interest, but before you ever get involved, make sure you have strong emotional support systems in place," he said. "You have to have that in place, because these cases can really wear you down."

UF's Byrd used his forensic entomology skills to ascertain information like the time of death in human crimes for 20 years before switching over to veterinary cases. He said animal cruelty has a different impact. "When you walk through a human crime scene, you don't know who that person is, but you know it could be a perpetrator of a crime," he said. "You walk through an animal crime scene, those animals are almost always the innocent victim."

"I have called upon my colleagues who've also done human crime, and I asked them to help me with some of these animal cases," he said. "A lot of them did, and then said, 'No more.' "

Part 2: Many veterinarians feel unprepared to handle animal abuse

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