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Veterinary Pathologists Help Keep Animals, Humans Healthy

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 1999 – Hear "veterinarian" and you think of the doctor who treats sick horses, dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs and other animals.

Hear "pathologist" and "autopsy" maybe comes to mind.

Hear "veterinary pathologist" and your first thought is probably "A what?"

"We're unique," said pathologist Army Dr. (Lt. Col.) Dale Dunn. "There's no other organization like us in the federal government." Dunn is the anatomic pathology section chief in the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology veterinary department. The institute is at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.

Dunn and the other staff pathologists play vital roles in diagnosing and treating diseases in animals and in military and civilian medical research and education.

"Keeping animals healthy helps keep humans healthy," he said. That's because understanding the cause of diseases in animals can aid in finding control measures and is important in understanding human disease processes, Dunn noted.

In a nutshell, Dunn said pathologists provide diagnostic and consultation services to the military and civilian medical communities; conduct educational programs and research in veterinary, comparative and toxicological pathology; and conduct the DoD veterinary pathology residency program -- the only one of its kind sponsored by the U.S. government.

"Everything we do translates into support for the military," Dunn said. "While we've consulted on everything from aardvarks to zebras, our main focus has always been the military working dog. The Department of Defense has about 1,500 military working dogs at work every day around the world. We're part of the support that keeps those dogs working."

The military uses dogs for patrol work and to detect drugs and explosives. The German shepherd and Belgian Malinois are the favored breeds because of their overall combination of keen sense of smell, endurance, speed, strength, courage, intelligence and adaptability to almost any climate. Some sporting breeds such as Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers and beagles are trained to detect explosives and drugs.

Veterinary pathologists at the institute also consult on working dogs for the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Border Patrol.

"You can compare what we do to what a hospital pathology laboratory does," Dunn said. "If a tumor is detected in a patient, the clinician removes a part of or the whole tumor and sends it to a pathologist to find out what it is. That's what we do for the veterinarians in the field. We examine the specimens to determine what disease is present. That gives the clinician the information needed to decide how best to treat the dog."

When a military working dog dies anywhere in the world, regardless of the circumstances of death, veterinarians perform an autopsy and send a standardized set of tissue specimens to the institute for examination, he said. On request, he and his staff also examine specimens and provide a second opinion to other pathologists, veterinarians or physicians, Dunn added.

Another major role is medical education. "The institute has the only government-sponsored veterinary pathology residency program in the country," Dunn said. "We have about a dozen residents here at any one time. They're all military veterinarians who have been competitively selected for training."

Veterinarians who complete their residency at the institute go on to fill positions at diverse military medical research facilities he noted. Examples include the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Washington; Army Research Institute of Infectious Disease in Frederick, Md.; Army Medical Research Institute for Chemical Defense at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; and other research organizations around the world. The department also supports the National Marine Fisheries Service, Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration and other government organizations, he said.

Veterinary pathologists have been involved for many years with the Navy marine mammal program, which was scaled back recently and is now primarily based in San Diego, Dunn said. In the last 10 years the department has increased its efforts with marine mammals "because there's an acute need for it," he noted.

"The federal government has jurisdiction over these animals and nowhere else to go for pathology help," Dunn said. "We work with whales, dolphins, sea lions, just about any marine mammal." For instance, he said, institute pathologists investigated mass deaths of bottle-nosed dolphins on the East Coast in 1987 and 1988 and traced the die-offs to a virus. Recent work focused on a cancer in sea lions that shares features with a human condition.

Dunn is currently conducting post-mortem studies of Gulf War veteran military working dogs to determine if they incurred health problems that could be linked to that service. No conclusions are available yet, he said, because researchers haven't completed their studies -- many of the four-legged war veterans are still alive.

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Click photo for screen-resolution image"Keeping the animals healthy helps keep the human population healthy," said Dr. (Lt. Col.) Dale Dunn, chief of the veterinary department anatomic pathology section at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Photo by Rudi Williams.  
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