Animal disease

Veterinary pathology is the study of disease in animals, for example, BSE and rabies. Veterinary pathology is divided into two sub-specialties – veterinary anatomic pathology and veterinary clinical pathology. Both sub-specialties deal with the pathophysiology of disease, quality control, validation of laboratory tests and laboratory management. Veterinary clinical pathologists are trained in the basic principles of laboratory instrumentation and methods, while anatomic pathologists are trained in post mortem room design and management.

Veterinary anatomic pathologists

Veterinary anatomic pathologists perform post mortem examinations on animals to determine the cause of death or disease. The organs and tissues are first examined with the naked eye to look for any visible abnormalities and to select small pieces to examine in more detail under the microscope. Specimens are then stained to show different parts of the cells and examined under a microscope. The veterinary pathologist will then inform the animal’s vet what was wrong and why the animal died. This information may be important to some owners or other agencies such as the RSPCA, and may be used by vets to help in the treatment of similar cases in the future.

What type of work?

Veterinary anatomic pathologists are vets who can diagnose or discount cancer and other serious diseases in animals. They look at tissues removed from animals in the clinic or during an operation and use a range of scientific methods to discover if a disease is present and what course of action needs to be taken. Veterinary pathologists sometimes look at tissue while the animal is having an operation; the surgeon removes a small amount of tissue and waits for the veterinary pathologists to make a diagnosis, before deciding on how to proceed. 

Veterinary clinical pathologists

Veterinary clinical pathologists study changes in chemical composition of body fluids inorder to diagnose and monitor disease processes. For example, blood sugar in diabetes and abnormal cells in body fluids, smears and tissue samples. They also look at cells aspirated from a lump to see if it is benign or cancerous, so the surgeon knows the best way to treat it.

What type of work?

Knowing the contents of body fluids can help vets make a diagnosis or indicate if an organ is not working properly. Fluids such as blood, urine and spinal fluid are tested in laboratories and the results are interpreted by veterinary clinical pathologists. For example, the level of phosphate or glucose in the blood helps vets diagnose and treat diseases like kidney failure or diabetes, or the type of cells present can indicate if the animal has an infection or cancer. By looking at a range of chemicals, sometimes over several days, clinical pathologists can provide information about how an animal's heart, liver, kidneys or pancreas are working.

What skills are needed?

Veterinary clinical pathologists are qualified vets who need a good general veterinary medical knowledge so that they can interpret test results for individual animals. They need good communications skills so they can pass on their expertise to other vets. Leadership and organisational skills are also essential when running a laboratory and interacting with the many other specialties that rely on the service.