Veterinary Forensics
Written by Jason H. Byrd, PhD, D-ABFE   

The ASPCA's Terry Mills and Forensic Analyst Amanda Fitch document the bloodstains of fighting dogs on a pit wall.

Law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys know cases of animal cruelty can indicate other types of criminal activity. Once discovered, these acts may also provide the probable cause necessary for law enforcement to investigate other crimes.

Many investigators do not have access to veterinary forensic scientists, often resulting in missing vital evidence needed to build a solid court case.

However, a working partnership with a veterinarian well-versed in forensic science and medicine or a crime scene investigator trained in veterinary forensic science techniques can change the outcome of these investigations by building a stronger case through the preservation of physical evidence previously overlooked or discarded.

Individuals who commit acts of animal cruelty are five times more likely to commit violent crimes, four times more likely to commit property crimes, and three times more likely to commit drug related offenses (Luke, Arluke, and Levin, 1997). Fifty-nine percent of animal abusers have committed at least one other crime, 38 percent of which are violent crimes, and 88 percent of cases of reported child abuse have associated instances of animal abuse (DeViney, Dickert, and Lockwood, 1983).

Professionals involved in animal abuse investigations typically do not have access to supporting forensic specialists, and therefore vital evidence may go undetected, unprocessed, and unanalyzed. Unique challenges such as expertise, responsibility, and jurisdiction intersect at the scene of an animal cruelty case—increasing the difficulty for professionals to gather high-quality evidence for an impenetrable court case.

It is not always possible for law enforcement to have a qualified veterinarian respond to a crime scene. But crime scene analysts can be educated in the nuances of animal crime scene investigation and discover physical evidence likely to be found with the animal.

While law enforcement may find a veterinarian willing to volunteer their time to assist with the case, budget challenges still exist. Even if the investigating agencies have the funds to cover medical costs, initial physical exams, and necropsy costs, they may be faced with the additional challenge of retaining a qualified veterinarian.

Distinct differences exist in methods for processing animal crime scenes from human crime scenes. In crimes involving animals, the creature itself—whether dead or alive—becomes physical evidence. A veterinarian is usually responsible for the required scientific documentation, but they often do not have sole responsibility for the animal and must work with law enforcement officers to properly investigate an animal crime.

Dr. Jason Byrd marks evidence to be collected on behalf of the ASPCA and analyzed at the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, University of Florida College of Medicine.

In such animal crimes, law enforcement will often encounter live animals that are now evidence, but must safely be removed from the scene and provided with housing, care, and eventual placement into a new home. Law enforcement will turn to an outside agency proficient at animal care and placement for this purpose.

When a medical examiner or coroner responds to a scene, they have jurisdiction over a single species: a human. Unlike with crimes involving people, animal crimes can involve nearly any species of animal—or several species at one location.

With crimes against humans, many jurisdictions are not able to have a medical examiner respond to the crime scene. Forensic pathologists who serve as medical examiners and coroners rely on crime scene investigators and medicolegal death investigators to report relevant information to the physician prior to autopsy. This same model must be followed in cases of animal crime.

In animal crime scenes, the medical examiner or coroner have no legal jurisdiction. The scenes are often expansive, encompassing multiple acres. The size and scope of many animal crime scenes make it impossible for a single crime scene analyst to process it. Sometimes investigators have hundreds of victims, such as in cases of animal hoarding or puppy mills.

Not all veterinarians are trained in live animal forensic exam techniques, and not all are experienced in how to conduct a proper forensic necropsy. The veterinarian must serve as the medical examiner for the animal crime. Physicians may be specialized in pathology, but not all pathologists are trained to conduct the autopsy. Likewise, not all veterinarians are trained in the forensic medical techniques required to conduct an adequate necropsy.

Dr. Jason Byrd, Kat Destreza, and Kyle Held set up a grid system to use for mapping of a burial site.

In an effort to improve law enforcement’s access to properly trained veterinarians, the University of Florida’s William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine offers in-person workshops and graduate distance education courses in veterinary forensic sciences and veterinary medicine. The program aims to increase the amount of physical evidence recovered from scenes of animal crimes and the number of qualified individuals ready to assist law enforcement.

The Maples Center is available for consultations on anthropology, botany, entomology, crime scene analysis, photography, bloodstain analysis, and shooting reconstruction. Necropsy services are also provided for recovering evidence from dead animals. Law enforcement agencies lacking the funding needed for these types of services can request financial support from groups such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). If investigation assistance is needed, the ASPCA’s specialized Field Investigations and Response Team is qualified and trained to assist law enforcement agencies.

A greater understanding of veterinary forensic science and medicine helps those working in the criminal justice system to ensure the public’s safety. More physical evidence backed by sound scientific analysis will persuade prosecuting attorneys to bring animal cruelty cases to the courtroom. More success will lead to higher interest in these cases from law enforcement and prosecutors and ultimately help put more violent criminals behind bars.

Bloodstains on a cockfighting ring are photographically documented before being collected as physical evidence.

About the Author

Jason Byrd is the Associate Director of the William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine. At the University of Florida, he instructs courses in forensic science at the University of Florida’s nationally recognized Hume Honors College. He is a Board Certified Forensic Entomologist and Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Entomology. He was twice elected President of the American Board of Forensic Entomology, and is a Past-President of the North American Forensic Entomology Association. He is the first person to be elected President of both professional North American Forensic Entomology Associations. He served for over a decade as a faculty member of the Virginia Institute of Forensic Science and Medicine.


DeViney E., J. Dickert, R. Lockwood. “Care of pets within child abusing families.” International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems. Volume: 4, Issue: 4, 1983.

Luke C., A. Arluke, J. Levin. Cruelty to animals and other crimes. MSPCA and Northeastern University, 1997.

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