Veterinary Toxicologists: The Unsung Heroes of the Veterinary Profession

Dr. John Tegzes
Courtesy of Dr. John Tegzes
Veterinary toxicologist Dr. John Tegzes.

While visiting Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, I spent time with a fellow vet school classmate. Amid all the catching up and obligatory gossip, we managed to get onto the topic of veterinary toxicology. Actually, the topic was kind of unavoidable, since that’s what this friend has chosen for his veterinary career.

There are currently only 83 board-certified veterinary toxicologists in the U.S., so they’re considered a rare bird in vet circles. It's why I’m so proud of the fact that my classmate, Dr. John Tegzes, MA, VMD, Dipl. ABVT, can be counted among this exalted class.

As you can imagine, it’s hard to become a vet toxicologist. After undertaking a residency and completing a rigorous examination — it’s so taxing that most applicants don’t pass on the first try — these elite professionals become uniquely qualified to not only dish out advice on how poisons affect our pets but also wildlife and agricultural species.

Unfortunately, even the most dedicated animal people don’t know that veterinary toxicologists exist — much less how they toil to save animal lives every single day. In fact, plenty of veterinarians don’t even understand how useful these colleagues can be.

With the goal of alleviating some of that understandable ignorance, I decided to interview Dr. Tegzes, a professor at the Western University School of Veterinary Medicine, on the subject of his profession:

Q. What does the average veterinary toxicologist do?

A. Dr. Tegzes: "Veterinary toxicologists work in a variety of fields. Historically, much of our work has been done in state diagnostic laboratories that test animals, human foods and animal feed for toxins, with the intention of preventing them from entering both human and animal food chains. We specialize in determining which toxins are potentially dangerous, and preventing such toxins — drug residues, plant toxins and pesticides — from being transferred into foods and feeds.

For example, a cow grazing on rangeland could potentially eat a variety of toxic plants over its lifespan. We work to determine which plants are potentially toxic, and then help to determine if the animal survived the ingestion, and if the toxins could be potentially transferred into their meat or milk and then transmitted to humans (or other animals) who ingest them."

Q. What inspired you to become a veterinary toxicologist?

A. "I was a second-year veterinary student at the University of Pennsylvania, and we had a guest lecturer present in my pharmacology/toxicology course. She was a forensic toxicologist working for the city of Philadelphia, and I was completely fascinated with her work. It amazed me how toxins affected the body, and how their specific effects caused very specific lesions in various organ systems. It was somewhat surprising to me that most toxins occur in nature, either in plants, minerals or the atmosphere.

After graduation, I worked at a small-animal general practice for a few years, and then I applied to a residency program in veterinary toxicology at UC Davis. To this day, I am continually amazed at how toxins work in the body — and how prepared nature is to deal with most of them!"

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