Veterinary pathologist observes 50 years of changes

The Canadian Animal Health Laboratorians Network includes people from a range of laboratory specialties including bacteriology, pathology, immunology, virology, parasitology, toxicology and molecular biology. | Screencap via cahln-rctlsa.com

This June, animal health professionals gathered for the Canadian Animal Health Laboratorians Network meeting. Like many things in 2020, the in-person conference was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine hosted the meeting in a virtual format.

The organization includes people from a range of laboratory specialties including bacteriology, pathology, immunology, virology, parasitology, toxicology and molecular biology.

According to its website, CAHLN was created in 2002 to:

  • Promote the exchange of information on trends, techniques and research in the field of animal health diagnostics.
  • Provide an opportunity for networking to identify issues of common concern.
  • Facilitate relationships between organizations and scientists who work in the field of animal health diagnostics in Canada.

As far as scientific meetings go, the intimacy and touch of Canadian understatement makes it a great place to connect with colleagues. We covered a mixture of local laboratory reports, scientific investigations and interesting cases of animal diseases across the country.

Few animal owners likely know what happens to a specimen or sample when it is sent to the laboratory by a clinical veterinarian.

After collecting a sample from an animal (for instance, blood or biopsy), veterinarians then send these samples to various animal health laboratories across the country and receive results.

What isn’t obvious from those exchanges is the tremendous dedication and people-power behind each laboratory test.

This meeting is where those dedicated people behind the scenes of animal health in our country gather.

Animal health laboratory professionals are committed to animal health, quality control, rigorous science and providing support for veterinarians. While you may not see them mucking around chute side, they do put in long hours in the lab and recognize the importance of quality, reliable diagnostics to individual producers and animal owners.

This year’s opening address was delivered by Dr. Grant Maxie. Originally from the outskirts of Calgary, he was in the illustrious first class of veterinarians to graduate from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in 1969.

He settled near Guelph, Ont., and had a long career in veterinary pathology and as the director of Ontario’s Animal Health Laboratory.

He is also editor of the main textbook of veterinary pathology, the hefty three-volume Pathology of Domestic Animals, as well as the Journal of Veterinary Diagnostic Investigations.

Maxie spoke about his 50 years of experience in veterinary pathology. The use of technology was one of the key changes he highlighted over the years. It is hard to imagine now, but lab reports used to be hand-written. Typewritten reports were followed by computer generated documents, and now completely electronic reporting systems have changed the speed with which veterinarians can receive results and deliver these to animal owners, often stall-side on their smartphones.

On this note, technology has also changed the laboratory benchtop work. Many tests required manual steps and were limited to basic methods. Now labs are equipped with high tech robots to automate many processes. Not only has this improved quality control, but it has also benefited technicians, who were susceptible to repetitive strain injuries from the manual tasks.

Another growing application of technology in animal health is the use of molecular testing, which has given us huge insight into the causes of disease, particularly those that are infectious between animals.

Technology has massively increased the ability to aggregate animal health data. This has stimulated a growing interest in how to use laboratory data to improve animal surveillance across the country.

One example of this is the Ontario Animal Health Network (www.oahn.ca), which generates species-specific information for producers in the various formats (podcasts, reports, media releases).

Maxie also pointed out that data presents a major challenge to the future of animal health diagnostics.

As with many areas, we now have the ability to generate and process incredible amounts of data, but it is challenging to gather meaning from all the available sources and put the information to good use. Some people refer to this as translating data into knowledge. We need to continually think about how to apply that knowledge to better management of animal health in Canada.

Refreshing as it was to connect with my colleagues and learn about their interesting work, I look forward to a time when we can all meet together in person again.

Over my next few columns, I’ll be sharing other interesting results and ideas presented from this dedicated group of animal health professionals.

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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