New forensic programs investigate deaths of unclaimed dogs and cats
International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association also releases standards for postmortem examinations
February 03, 2021
As the field of veterinary forensics continues to develop, a forensic pathologist at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine has created two programs, A Dog Has No Name and A Cat Has No Name, to investigate the deaths of unclaimed dogs and cats. At the same time, the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association has released standards for postmortem examinations.
Dr. Adam Stern, a forensic pathologist at the UF veterinary college, created the new programs to investigate the deaths of unclaimed animals in the Florida area. Since the programs’ start in 2019, more than 150 dogs and cats have been examined, including some from across the U.S.
“We’re doing a long-term mortality study, looking at these animals and figuring out what is going on with them,” Dr. Stern said. “They’re not all being hit by cars, and we are finding some interesting stuff. We are documenting it, including some suspicious deaths that we report to law enforcement.”
A Dog Has No Name and A Cat Has No Name are a collaboration between law enforcement and forensic specialists at Florida’s Maples Center for Forensic Medicine.
One of the goals of the programs is to find the owners of the unclaimed animals.
“We have reunited some dogs to the owners for closure, and they were appreciative for what we did. It’s doing a good deed, at the end of the day. Some of these people are going to be searching for a dog forever. We want to provide closure,” Dr. Stern said. “As a pathologist, I deal with end of life, that is all I do. This is a positive effect, the closure is positive.”
Dr. Stern said the programs are also being used to train residents and students on death investigations. Most case investigations include a traditional autopsy and a gross examination with a postmortem CT scan and radiography.
“Anything we need to do, we will do,” Dr. Stern said. “If we have an owner that thinks it may be their cat, we have the capabilities to do a DNA comparison. We are also banking tissues from every case. We have reports from every case that include tissues, so we can go back and do retrospectives.”
Dr. Stern is also working to make other veterinarians across the U.S. aware of what the programs do and is currently willing to accept samples of unowned, stray, or street animals from anywhere in the U.S. The services are free of charge.
The guidelines on postmortem examinations, released in December 2020, include clinical best practices for identifying, documenting, and preserving evidence in crimes when animals are involved and there is suspected abuse.
The guidelines (PDF) were created by the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association.
“As board-certified pathologists and leaders in the field of veterinary forensic pathology, it is our duty to develop a set of standards to provide a framework to ensure that forensic postmortem examinations are performed to a minimum standard,” Dr. Stern said.
The standards include some of the following language related to how a veterinarian should perform a postmortem examination:
Investigate cooperatively with but independent from law enforcement and prosecutors.
Operate without any undue influence from law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.
Evaluate the circumstances of the reported death.
Determine the order of examination and sample collection on the basis of the individual case.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named several organizations as creators of the guidelines on postmortem examinations. The International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association alone created the guidelines. Also, the article had previously given the wrong year for when A Dog Has No Name and A Cat Has No Name started. The programs started in 2019.