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Pathology is the study of disease and underpins the diagnosis and treatment of many conditions in man and animals. Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily the study of dead animals, although that forms part of the job. The myth that pathologists provide the answer "but a day too late" has long since died.
Pathology extends from basic research using in vitro systems to analysis of blood and other tissue samples from live animals. There are many essential applications, besides the diagnosis of disease, including national disease surveillance in livestock and the development of new treatments for animals and man.
Anatomic pathology covers the traditional disciplines of gross pathology, histopathology and electron microscopy although there are constant developments in all fields. In recent years there have been massive advances in the use of immunohistochemistry and in situ hybridisation as well as the developments in the technology to investigate pathology at the molecular level, which can almost be classified as separate sub-disciplines (genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, metabonomics).
Assessment of the health of an animal by the sampling of bodily fluids and cytology of other in vitro samples is the basis of the practice of clinical pathology. Assessment is made in three main areas:
Haematology of blood and bone marrow.
Biochemistry including endocrinology of blood, serum, plasma and urine.
Cytology of body fluids, bone marrow and various organs by fine needle techniques.
Specialist techniques including immunophenotyping for neoplasia and various immunology techniques are also available.
Why is pathology important?
Without an accurate diagnosis, the selection of a course of treatment for a sick animal may be limited.
For companion animals, pathology may mean analysis of blood or urine samples or even tissue biopsies of tumours.
In the sphere of veterinary public health, it is vital that notifiable and other communicable diseases are diagnosed quickly and accurately.
In research, the understanding of disease processes is important in the development of new treatments. In recent years, the study of the genome has opened a wide range of possibilities in investigating the causes of disease.
What qualifications are needed?
For diagnostic veterinary pathology, which involves the assessment of pathological changes in a clinical context, it is necessary to be a veterinary surgeon. Just as anatomic pathology cannot be considered in isolation, clinical pathology findings must also be correlated with the results of other investigations (e.g. radiography and ultrasound) as well as the clinical history and findings from physical examination. A background in clinical practice, therefore, is essential.
In research positions and in industry, a veterinary qualification may not be necessary but is undoubtedly of great value. A career in veterinary pathology without a primary veterinary qualification is, however considerably more difficult.
Undergraduate veterinary education in pathology includes a BA (Cambridge) in Pathology and BSc in Comparative Pathology (London) as optional intercalated degree subjects. These courses offer a good introduction to pathology as a specialty.
Postgraduate education allows the veterinary graduate to develop their skills as a pathologist to a professional level. In most areas of veterinary pathology, it is necessary to have qualified with a veterinary degree. There are two basic types of postgraduate education: residency programmes and on-the-job training.
Five main types of postgraduate qualification are routinely pursued:
1. FRCPath (Anatomic & Clinical Pathology)
2. Dip.ECVP (Anatomic Pathology)
3. Dip.ECVCP (Clinical Pathology)
4. Dip.ACVP (Anatomic & Clinical Pathology)
5. PhD (note that a PhD alone will not normally be sufficient for a role as a diagnostic or toxicological pathologist)
Where does post-graduate training take place?
Training in veterinary pathology can be undertaken in a university residency position or as 'on-the-job' training in the work place. Depending on the field of work, this may involve a university, an industrial company, a government laboratory, a commercial diagnostic laboratory or a research establishment.
Residency programmes are available at all veterinary schools and some other institutions (Animal Health Trust).
What career paths are available?
The main career paths are found in industry, universities, government laboratories, diagnostic laboratories and research institutes.
Veterinary pathology in the industrial sector is mainly concerned with toxicological pathology. This branch of experimental pathology is aimed at the identification of the hazards and risks of many new and old materials to man and animals whether administered intentionally or accidentally.
The range of skills, and their deployment, is wide and varies from the pathologist generating data and preparing reports for submissions to regulatory agencies to pathologists working with molecular techniques to discover modes of action of toxicity and develop new models of human diseases.
Safety and environmental concerns are not restricted by national boundaries and the industries are truly global. Employment can be obtained almost anywhere in the world and the opportunities for personal and career development are substantial.
Working in a University
Careers in universities underpin the future of veterinary pathology education at undergraduate and graduate level. Career paths can be followed in both anatomic and clinical pathology.
Faculty members have a range of responsibilities from teaching, diagnostic pathology to research and administration. The proportions vary, with some pathologists emphasising one or more of these disciplines. Teaching is a significant task and the preparation and delivery of the undergraduate curriculum is a major commitment. Supervision in the necropsy room and the examination of students are other important and rewarding tasks.
Most academic pathologists participate in research programmes into animal or human disease mechanisms that may use the full range of available techniques. The acquisition of funding is a key activity for researchers and a considerable amount of time must be spent preparing grant applications, directing laboratory work and writing papers.
There are seven veterinary schools approved by the RCVS in the UK, all with a need for pathologists to undertake routine diagnostic tasks in anatomic pathology, clinical pathology and microbiology as well as teaching duties and research.
There may also be opportunities in other UK universities, or elsewhere in Europe, such as the Dublin Veterinary School.
In the main, most careers in universities will start with a residency and/or a PhD programme (or a combination of the two).
Commercial Diagnostic Practice
Commercial laboratories provide diagnostic services for veterinary practices and accuracy, rapid response and informed interpretation are required to maintain high standards of service.
Several large commercial laboratories around the country employ a significant number of veterinary anatomic and clinical pathologists.
With experience, a practitioner may either remain in a diagnostic or scientific position or pursue the commercial and scientific direction of their company in a management position.
Animal Health Veterinary Laboratories Agency
Britain relies on a network of veterinary surgeons, scientists and animal health officers to maintain a broad lever of surveillance to monitor and sustain the high health status of its livestock and to identify new and emerging diseases, including those that originate from wildlife.
The AHVLA is one of the world's largest veterinary laboratory-based organisations and is recognised throughout the world for its contributions to livestock and public health.
At both the Weybridge laboratory and the one in Scotland, veterinary pathologists participate in multidisciplinary research programmes into a wide range of animal diseases, principally infectious. An important role for the pathologists is to provide the vital link between the observed anatomic and microscopic changes and the underlying molecular mechanisms that is essential to the development of rational control strategies.
Departments can be found at:
- AHVLA Central Veterinary Laboratory (CVL), Weybridge, Surrey
- Lasswade Laboratory, Bush Loan, Penicuik, Midlothian
- AHVLA Veterinary Surveillance Units at Liverpool University Leahurst campus and the Royal Veterinary college campus at Hawkshead.
- AHVLA currently has a network of 14 regional laboratories in England and Wales
- Clinical pathology examinations are mainly carried out at the Shrewsbury regional laboratory.(note that in 2013 the AHVLA network will be significantly reduced).
More information can be found on the AHVLA website.
Who provides funding?
There are several sources of funds for residencies and training but they are highly competitive and there are not many of them. For on-the-job training, some employers will provide time for study and training.
- RCVS Knowledge
- Pharmaceutical companies
- Commercial diagnostic laboratories
- The Home of Rest for Horses
- Animal Health Trust
- Wellcome Trust
What is the next step?
Many veterinary surgeons decide to follow a career in pathology after an initial period in practice with only a small number deciding to go straight into the specialty after graduation.
Further career advice can be obtained by contacting veterinary pathologists in the workplace (for example those working in university departments) or via organisations such as the BSVP and BSTP.