Death to parasites; long live parasitology

National Center for Veterinary Parasitology aims to advance discipline
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Dr. Susan Little finds the lives of parasites to be fascinating. Nevertheless, as a veterinarian, she wants them dead.

Much of veterinary practice revolves around parasitology, but the discipline can get short shrift in the breadth of the curricula at veterinary colleges. The National Center for Veterinary Parasitology at Oklahoma State University seeks to preserve the discipline for the profession, said Dr. Little, NCVP co-director.

"I know that seems like an odd thing to say because the parasites certainly aren’t going anywhere, but we had seen trends over 20 or 30 years of decreasing focus on clinical veterinary parasitology at several of the veterinary colleges," Dr. Little said.

She said small animal practitioners derive about a quarter of their practice income from parasitology, and parasites also are important to the health of large animals, so the center’s leaders see veterinary parasitology as a core discipline.

The Oklahoma State University Center for Veterinary Health Sciences launched the NCVP in 2009. In 2011, the AVMA granted provisional recognition of parasitology as a specialty under the American College of Veterinary Microbiologists. The cornerstone of the NCVP is the residency program, but the center also promotes research and offers resources.

Members of the American Associ­ation of Veterinary Parasit­olo­gists may apply to the NCVP for re­search grants of up to $15,000. The center provides specimens and images for teaching and research. The NCVP website features cases of the month.

The NCVP started out with a grant from a local private foundation, the Kirkpatrick Foundation. Industry support has built up over the years, with companies sponsoring residents based at various institutions.

The National Center for Veterinary Parasitology offers a free database of parasite images. At top is a cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, and at bottom are lone star ticks, Amblyomma americanum. (Images courtesy of the National Center for Veterinary Parasitology)

The residency program takes about four years. The residents conduct research, earn a doctoral degree, complete clinical training, and study for the board examination. They must work at a diagnostic laboratory and present continuing education on parasitology to veterinarians.

Former residents have gone on to academia and industry. Dr. Little’s goal is for half to join academia and half to join industry.

Dr. Little herself got interested in parasitology while a veterinary student at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. She said Dr. Anne Zajac, a professor of parasitology, tells the best stories—and parasites make the best stories.

"Parasites are using animals as their planet, right? That’s their host. So they’re animals living in and on other animals, and the way they make their way in that world is to me just inherently fascinating. I am always amazed and still, 25 years on, still just have an incredible sense of wonder about how all this fits together.

"And then added to that, of course, is I am a veterinarian, and so my goal is to kill the parasites. So it is also very satisfying because we have such great parasite control strategies. There’s just no reason anymore that a dog or cat should have fleas or that horses should suffer losses from gastrointestinal parasites."

One of the first NCVP residents, Dr. Lindsay Starkey, went on to become an assistant professor at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine. She described parasitology as an awesome subject, saying, "Parasites are so interesting, and they do such unique things."

After finishing her veterinary de­gree at Oklahoma State, Dr. Starkey stayed on there as an NCVP resident. She noted that part of the program involves visiting other diagnostic laboratories because parasites can be very regional.

Under Dr. Little, Dr. Starkey studied ehrlichiosis, a common tick-borne disease in the South. One component of the project was assessing the risk of tick-borne diseases among dogs in Oklahoma. The researchers took 10 Beagles to an outdoor recreational area every weekend and did not remove ticks from the dogs. All 10 got multiple tick-borne infections, although none actually got sick.

Dr. Starkey also participated in teaching veterinary students and found she enjoyed working with them. She finished her doctoral degree and passed her board examination in 2015, did some postdoctoral work, and joined the Auburn faculty in 2016.

"Parasitology is a huge part of clinical practice, so therefore it needs to be a huge part of training," Dr. Starkey reiterated. In 2017, she came back to the NCVP as a member of the advisory board.

Related JAVMA content:

Oklahoma State establishes parasitology center (May 1, 2009)

Parasitology specialty gets provisional recognition (June 1, 2011)