General Principles of Veterinary Forensic Sciences and Medicine


Some of the recognized pioneers in veterinary forensic sciences are Dr. Melinda Merck, Dr. Ranald Munro, Dr. Helen M.C. Munro, Dr. John Cooper, Dr. Randall Lockwood, and Dr. M.V. Thrushfield. These pioneering authors have been thought leaders on the subject since at least the latel990s. Through their work, the initial foundations of veterinary forensic sciences have been established. Today, when one thinks of veterinary forensic medicine, the first thought that comes to mind is dealing with animal abuse cases, with both living and deceased animals. There are diverse terms such as forensic veterinarian or forensic veterinary pathologist. Terms like human—animal bond and “the link” arise in discussing the relationship of animal cruelty to all forms of human violence.

Forensic medicine, whether applied to humans or animals, is becoming more important in our modern and litigious society, which is captivated by crime-based television. Medical and legal issues are increasingly coalescing in both civil and criminal matters, increasing the challenge to provide forensic expertise in a myriad of areas. It is therefore imperative that veterinary practitioners providing expert witness testimony to the courts possess essential knowledge and experience to perform examinations and evaluations in a manner that will enable the courts to reach a verdict (Cooper & Cooper, 2007).

Defining Veterinary Forensics

Currently, there is no single definition for veterinary forensic sciences. When people think about veterinary forensic sciences, they envision animal abuse cases and mandatory reporting of such cases. Within veterinary forensic medicine, there is already an established expectation that veterinary forensic sciences involve pathology, prosecution of animal abusers, or wildlife crime (Bailey, 2016). In reality, veterinary forensic sciences often involve many more independent sciences that have a forensic application in a court of law. Veterinary forensic sciences, in the realm of animal abuse cases, may involve prosecution and defense testimony. A forensic veterinarian in many instances is the conduit for information across multiple veterinary specialties, as well as professions. A forensic veterinarian will know or be familiar with the veterinary communities: boarded specialists; experts in specific areas such as reptiles, birds, and wildlife; and zoo veterinarians. These veterinarians, although experts in the specific areas, may be unfamiliar with legal or regulatory issues.

Forensic techniques applied to the understanding and resolution of crimes has been well documented for well over a century. Even with this longstanding history, forensic medicine is still evolving (Cooper & Cooper, 2007). The specialty of veterinary forensic medicine is now an established, but novel, specialist area (Cooper & Cooper, 2007).

Just as human forensic medicine covers many diverse areas, so does forensic veterinary practice. These diverse areas of practice include animal welfare, abuse, biodiversity, and regulatory issues (Cooper & Cooper, 2007).

Defining veterinary forensic sciences is difficult. The word forensic, defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is defined as means “belonging to, used in, or suitable to courts of judicature or to public discussion and debate.” A secondary definition of "relating to or dealing with the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems” also exists (Merriam-Webster 2018). The dictionary then defines forensic medicine as “a science that deals with the relation and application of medical facts to legal problems." Therefore, it encompasses much more than just animal abuse cases. Veterinary forensic science is the application of a broad spectrum of sciences, including veterinary medicine, to answer questions of interest to a court of law (Touroo, 2015). An even broader definition of veterinary forensics is “the application of science in the resolution of legal disputes involving animals and animal derivatives” (Bailey, 2016).

Today forensic science is a multidisciplinary science with contributions from differing areas of science and technology. In addition, the term “forensic’’ addresses multiple non-legal issues. Issues outside the courts include insurance claims, environmental impact assessments, public service commissions, or addressing allegations of professional misconduct or other disciplinary concerns considered by state veterinary examining boards (Cooper & Cooper, 2007).

Forensic Science History

Human forensic medicine history goes back well over 1000 years, with some of the earliest records originating from China (Cooper & Cooper, 2007). Islamic medicine applied forensic approaches to investigate disease and causes of death going back hundreds of years (Bradley, 1927). Forensic medicine essentially evolved in Europe and has led medicolegal investigations there throughout the last millennium (Cooper & Cooper, 2007). One of the more eminent forensic pathologists in the recent past was Sir Bernard Spilsbury (1877-1947) in developing the forensic field (Cooper & Cooper, 2007). He was involved in most of the publicized murder cases in the United Kingdom at the turn of the century. At that time the medical forensic expert, usually the pathologist, would have had immense authority in all medical matters but would have also been the conduit to other people from other forensic disciplines (Cooper & Cooper, 2007).

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