Forensic science helps investigate animal abuse cases

Veterinary pathologists are often tasked with conducting autopsies on abused animals. | Getty Images

Over the past few decades, there has been growing interest and expertise in applying the science of forensics to animal abuse investigations. Forensics are defined as the use of scientific methods and techniques in crime investigations.

This interest has been driven by increased societal awareness of animal welfare issues. There is also growing recognition that abusers of animals also may abuse spouses and children.

Veterinary pathologists are often tasked with conducting autopsies on abused animals. To foster the development of professional skills and knowledge in these areas among veterinary pathologists, the American College of Veterinary Pathologists has hosted post-conference workshops on the topic over the last few years.

At the forefront of this movement in Canada is Dr. Beverly McEwen, a veterinary forensic pathologist, who is based out of the Animal Health Laboratory in Guelph, Ont., and is an adjunct professor at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine.

She is a key member of an international working group that set out to create formal veterinary forensic standards for both live and deceased animal abuse investigations.

These standards were published in late 2020 by the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association (IVFSA), which aims to foster excellence in veterinary forensic sciences and includes more than 130 members from 16 countries.

The standards are available as a free download on the IVFSA website ( These documents are an incredible and much-needed resource for veterinarians and animal welfare professionals, police officers, judges, lawyers and forensic scientists tasked with assisting in forensic investigations and prosecutions.

Thanks to TV programs like CSI, we may have a Hollywood interpretation of what crime scene investigations and forensic autopsies entail, but working with animal victims requires special considerations.

As well, the use of forensics in veterinary medicine is far behind that of human forensics in terms of formal protocols and investigations. But adoption of these standards is a great advancement in the field.

Compared to a standard veterinary examination of living animals or autopsy examination of diseased animals, the forensic examination is more structured and detailed and has several special steps. These documents provide the minimum standards for veterinarians who perform these examinations. With time, it is likely these forensic standards will also become a critical reference for legal and law-enforcement professionals as well.

The post-mortem (autopsy) document contains a detailed list that includes information in several broad categories.

There are instructions for what to record such as animal breed, sex, weight, injury description, what to photograph (packaging, body from all sides, all injuries), and what supportive tests to conduct (X-rays of bodies that weigh less than 70 kilograms, microscopic tissue assessment if cause of death is unknown after the autopsy examination or if the age of injury is important).

There are also details for how to write the report, which differs from those done for routine animal disease investigations.

The sister document is the live animal examination standards, used by veterinarians who assess living animals as part of criminal investigations. It includes lists of how to correctly document physical examination results, laboratory tests, X-rays, photographs and evidence handling.

It is fortunate to have McEwan as part of this working group to offer a Canadian perspective.

Thankfully, it has been my experience that forensic investigations are not a daily occurrence at veterinary laboratories in Canada. But since veterinarians are not often doing this type of work, having clear guidelines is a powerful resource.

The efforts to write international standards will clarify and enhance the ability of veterinarians to assist with animal abuse investigations and prosecution. And the reduction of animal abuse will benefit animal welfare and society as a whole.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger, DVM, MVetSc,PhD, DACVP, is a veterinarian who practices pathology and is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Twitter: @JRothenburger

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