Veterinary forensic science pioneers present at NAVC

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) this month turned up the heat on animal abusers with two initiatives in Florida aimed to expand the small field of veterinary forensics.

The University of Florida announced last week it is forming a Veterinary Forensic Sciences Program at the school’s William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine. The program is being formed with a $150,000 grant from the ASPCA, and a three-year commitment of support from the ASPCA, the university said in a news release.

The opening day of the North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 17, also featured a series of presentations on “Animal CSI – Veterinary Forensics,” sponsored by the ASPCA.

Speakers included Sharon Gwaltney-Brant, DVM, PhD, of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center; University of Florida forensic entomologist Jason Byrd, PhD, DABFE; and Robert Reisman, DVM, medical coordinator of animal cruelty cases at Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital/ASPCA in New York.

Reisman, who has been with the ASPCA for 20 years, talked about his work investigating animal cruelty cases through forensic investigation. For example, using dentition measurements, Reisman is able to determine a dog’s approximate age. He then compares this information to a standard growth chart. After the dog has been rescued and fed normally for a certain amount of time, it will go through a period of compensatory growth as its body struggles to get to a normal growth level. This is a clue indicating the animal has been starved.

He also explained other signs, such as “battered animal syndrome,” in which the animal has multiple fractures or wounds at different stages of healing – a typical sign of abuse.

“Any time we see any injury we do a radiograph,” he said. “It better defines the injury.”

Resiman said the work is important not only to protect animals, but also because animal abuse often carries over into the human world.

“A violent person is a violent person,” he said. “They really don’t care who their victim is.”

Gwaltney-Brant talked about how to identify intentional animal poisonings (very difficult to prove), and Byrd discussed studying insects at a crime scene to determine how long an animal has been dead.

The presence of flies and maggots are an important clue in forensic investigation, he said, since flies very quickly go to a dead body to reproduce, and the eggs hatch in as little as eight hours. 

“A carcass is the singles bar of the fly world,” Byrd said.

He explained that natural decomposition occurs from the head downward. Therefore the presence of insects in areas separated from this natural progression likely indicates a defensive injury. Investigation of these other wounds could yield clues to the manner of death.

Byrd is one of only 13 board-certified forensic entomologists in the country, and said he got involved in animal forensics after being in contact with Melinda Merck, DVM, senior director of veterinary forensic sciences at the ASPCA. Merck was responsible for collecting evidence in the high-profile dog-fighting case involving football player Michael Vick.

“Forensics is most important in animal cases,” Merck said. “There are usually no witnesses and the victims can’t testify. … They are all evidence-based cases.”

The University of Florida’s new program will offer undergraduate and graduate courses, as well as continuing education classes for veterinarians. The university hopes that the forensic sciences program will increase the number of veterinarians, law enforcement officers and animal control officers who are trained to identify signs of abuse and cruelty.

Byrd said the university will likely begin offering a graduate-level certificate program later this year, followed by a Master’s degree in Veterinary Forensic Science in 2010, and a Doctoral program in forensic medicine by 2011.

Veterinarians who become involved in animal cruelty cases can contact the Maples Center for advice and for specific references. Information on compensatory growth and other forensic methods are also available online at For more information on the University of Florida’s program, visit