We all love a good criminal mystery, and those who solve them professionally will tell you that they do it to give voice to the victims and make sure people who commit crimes face justice. Professionals typically share this mission in a law enforcement capacity, as private detectives, or even as insurance agents making sure that their clients’ interests are protected.
All of these professions are dedicated to using proper and legal methods and tools to track down how a crime occurred and who may have been responsible. Their efforts go to the heart of our legal system and are dramatized on hit TV shows. Getting into the “why” is the domain of philosophy, psychology, and sociology, but the “how” has led to the modern field of criminal forensics.
There is no shortage of methods and reasons why people hurt and steal from each other, and traditionally, this type of sleuthing has primarily focused on man-on-man crime. But what about animals?
A subset of criminal forensics focuses on figuring out how or why an animal was injured killed or why an animal killed or injured a human. Could an investigation show whether an animal died naturally or accidentally? Can evidence gathered in an animal abuse case be used to convince a jury to render a guilty verdict?
Continue reading to learn more about this profession and opportunities to receive useful training.
What is Veterinary Forensics?
The field of forensic veterinary science is relatively new but essential. People trained to work with animals can use their expertise to figure out what happened to an animal. Forensic veterinary specialists may visit animal crime scenes, interview witnesses, analyze animal tissue, and perform the animal version of an autopsy, called a necropsy. They sometimes testify in court about their findings, such as what they saw and determined in an investigation into an illegal dog fighting ring.
Animals could also have the role of suspects, victims, even witnesses. While an animal may not be able to talk or point out the perpetrator in court, investigators can still recover evidence from them including a suspect’s DNA or their DNA on a suspect.
Animal forensics is a small but growing field: the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association, one organization that provides training and certification, has about 130 registered members in 16 countries.
The services of trained forensic investigators from this group and other organizations can be requested in domestic cruelty crimes like dogfighting or cockfighting rings and breeding mills, where surviving or deceased animals can be examined to connect them to human suspects and hopefully lead to arrest and prosecution.
Forensics can also be used to solve wildlife crimes like poaching or crimes caused by other animals. Does this death appear to be caused by a dog, a coyote, a wolf, or even a mountain lion? Was it rabies or some other infection that made the raccoon attack?
Animal forensics can be a challenging line of work since many suspects do not care about how they treat an animal, so animals will often be found in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Investigators may also have a natural affinity for animals which can make it challenging to remain objective in cases where an animal has been killed, severely injured, or is suffering. That being said, the effort can be satisfying if someone’s investigatory methods and expert testimony can lead to an arrest and conviction.
Career Prospects for Veterinary Forensic Specialists
Veterinary forensics goes beyond loving animals and loving mysteries. The profession requires a thorough knowledge of animal physiology, biology, and behavior, as well as strong attention to detail. People with these skills and abilities often have backgrounds in veterinary sciences, zoology, biology, or wildlife sciences. Forensic veterinary specialists also benefit from skills more associated with law enforcement, such as interpersonal communication and modern investigative methods.
Most people with veterinary forensic training have “day jobs,” such as positions at veterinary clinics, wildlife agencies, public health agencies, or animal control, and they consult as forensic veterinary specialists. They may be called in on a case by case basis to work with law enforcement or other investigators. Skilled forensic veterinary scientists could potentially be called anywhere in the country if their expertise is needed and an appropriate investigator cannot be found locally.
Because veterinary forensics is a new discipline, it is not yet tracked or classified as an actual occupation. This means that the average earning potential and job outlook can vary from community to community and any income may be considered supplemental to regular wages as an animal professional. Some professions can benefit from training and experience in veterinary forensic training. Based on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, 2016) data, these include the following.
Forensic Science Technicians
The forensic science technician position collects and analyzes evidence at crime scenes and in labs. The position had 15,400 jobs nationally in 2016 and openings expected to grow 17 percent between 2016 and 2026, much higher than the average 7 percent growth rate for all U.S. jobs. The median wage is $57,850 per year or about $28 per hour.
This job often is part of a public agency, such as a police force, and typically relates to human crime. Depending on the duties, people could be out in the field gathering data or analyzing it in a lab. Forensic science technicians might occasionally have cases that involve animals and can complete additional courses or trainings to specialize in veterinary forensics.
Zoologists and Wildlife Biologists
Zoologists and wildlife biologists study animals in their natural environment including how they interact with humans and other animals. The industry employs about 19,400 people and is expected to grow 8 percent nationally between 2016 and 2026. The median wage is $62,290 per year or $30 per hour.
Since their goal is to understand how animals live in their natural habitat, zoologists and wildlife biologists can spend extended observational time in the field, often in remote conditions over prolonged periods.
Veterinary Technologists and Technicians
The primary duties of veterinary technologists or technicians are to perform testing and analysis to diagnose animal health. This profession employs 102,000 people in the U.S. and is expected to grow 20 percent with 20,400 jobs added between 2016 and 2026. The median annual salary is $33,400 and the median hourly wage is $16.
The work of a veterinary technologist often takes place in a lab or research setting in partnership with a veterinarian, and the position typically requires a bachelor’s degree in biology or natural science. Procedure-wise, it might be the closest to the forensics role, but many consulting roles necessitate more advanced training and credentials, such as a master’s degree or a doctorate in veterinary medicine (DVM).
A DVM or veterinarian diagnoses and heals injured animals. This line of work is expected to grow by 19 percent, from 79,600 veterinarians in 2016 to 94,600, in the decade preceding 2026. Due to their required education credentials, these professionals can expect to make a median $90,420 a year or $43 an hour.
Veterinarians must have completed a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) degree from an accredited veterinary college. They must also obtain a state license to practice. This profession demands the most training and therefore sets professionals up for a successful career consulting on animal forensic cases.
Veterinary Assistants and Laboratory Animal Caretakers
An entry-level position for aspiring veterinarians could be that of veterinary assistants and laboratory animal caretakers. These professionals care for animals in clinical and care settings. There are about 83,800 of them in the U.S. as of 2016, but the profession is expected to grow by 19 percent—adding another 16,300 in the subsequent decade. The median wage is $26,140 a year or about $13 an hour.
Although they are not directly involved in any criminal cases, the position could be a great entry-level opportunity where aspiring animal forensics specialists could care for injured animals and see if it is an area that interests them.
Featured Programs in Veterinary Forensics & Related Disciplines
Although many veterinary or zoology programs provide a solid foundation of animal physiology and pathology, which can be supplemented by on-the-job training, forensics experts recommend additional education for those who want to consider this type of investigation regularly.
In some cases, students interested in the forensics field may not necessarily want to attend veterinary school either. As of 2019, there is only one accredited program that teaches veterinary forensics outside of veterinary schools. While the University of Florida is the only school in the country with this degree, various veterinary programs may offer courses that could aid enrolled students interested in a forensics pathway.
A partnership between the University of Florida, UF Health and the ASPCA led to the creation of this collaborative online program that trains students in how to investigate animal crime scenes, interpret evidence, recognize abuse, and other useful skills.
One option is a 30-credit master of science in veterinary medical sciences with a veterinary forensic science concentration. The program provides information about animal law, pathology, and analysis. Students can also pursue a 15-credit graduate certificate or up to six non-degree credits. Students can also earn a nine-credit online graduate certificate in wildlife forensic sciences and conservation from the UF College of Medicine, which focuses on wildlife identification and conservation, including DNA analysis and crime scene response.
Applicants for both the degree and the certificate programs must have a bachelor’s degree in natural science or a DVM. For the degree program, applicants must have a 3.0 GPA and GRE scores of 153 in verbal and 144 in quantitative. For the certificate program, applicants must have at least a 2.0 GPA.
- Location: Gainesville, FL
- Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools
- Tuition: $525 per credit
- Program length: Six to 30 credits depending on the program
The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine’s pathobiology graduate programs allow students to diagnose diseases within zoos and aquariums. Its Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory focuses on testing and analyzing diseases, toxins, and infectious agents in samples provided by vets, public officials, and scientists around the country. Students work alongside faculty and staff with backgrounds in animal pathology, virology, immunology, and forensics.
Students can earn a master of science or a PhD degree in pathobiology. The doctoral degree may also be obtained in conjunction with a medical doctorate (MD) or a DVM. Applicants must submit GRE scores and a minimum 3.0 GPA in their previous study. Most students receive tuition waivers or stipends.
- Location: Chicago, IL
- Accreditation: The American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education (AVMA COE)
- Tuition: $27,578 per year for residents; $49,402 per year for non-residents
- Program length: Two to three years
Within the standard curriculum, DVM students at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine can choose or design various selective paths, including the shelter medicine path, which focuses on small animals that need care. Other tracks include wildlife clinic, lab animal medicine, community medicine, and large animal medicine. Along with providing evaluation and treatment, students also study forensics.
- Location: North Grafton, MA
- Accreditation: AVMA COE
- Tuition: $51,116 for the full program for residents; $56,116 for the full program for non-residents
- Program length: Three years
The College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia offers a DVM program as well as multiple graduate programs for animal medicine professionals. Students can obtain dual degrees alongside their DVM, including a master of public health (MPH), or PhDs in physiology and pharmacology, interdisciplinary toxicology, infectious diseases, veterinary pathology, and interdisciplinary neuroscience—all of which relate closely to veterinarian forensics.
At the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, students and staff evaluate information and tissue coming in from veterinarians and law enforcement around the country. Students have the opportunity to learn and apply forensic skills in the analysis process, including examining trauma to testing for toxins. Third-year students attend courses and rotations each semester.
- Location: Athens, GA
- Accreditation: AVMA COE
- Tuition: $17,170 per year for residents; $46,250 per year for non-residents
- Program length: Three years
Other Resources in Veterinary Forensics
In addition to the accredited programs, several animal-focused forensic organizations provide additional training and networking opportunities.
The ASPCA offers a variety of free or low-cost online seminars, conferences, courses, and regional training to supplement existing information that various professionals may have. These include everything from toxicology classes to field investigations, and one course is intended for law enforcement to learn about animal cruelty.
The SWFS offers resources and certifications for those interested in wildlife forensic methods and practices, whether veterinary, agricultural or law enforcement. These include tracking disease, identifying illegal hunting activities, and more. People can learn how to be proficient in identifying animals, including species and gender, along with individual characteristics. The society also offers a student mentoring program.
The IVFSA offers a variety of conferences, workshops, and coursework in forensic science and veterinary medical science. It also has five levels of membership, but only associate and full members can consult with public or private agencies on topics of cruelty, abuse, or neglect. Associate members must have at least a four-year degree or equivalent, and full members must have at least graduate-level credentials. Past conference topics have included animal crime scenes; forensic photography; and pathology.