Veterinary Toxicologists: The Unsung Heroes of the Veterinary Profession
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!"
Q. Where do you find jobs?
A. "Many of us work for pharmaceutical companies, conducting safety assessments and investigating potential toxic effects from drugs prior to being manufactured for therapeutic use. Some of us also work for pet-food manufacturers and human-food processing facilities.
Academia makes up another important job function. We work for universities, usually in colleges of veterinary medicine, where we conduct research and have teaching responsibilities.
In the past decade, poison control centers have also become a very important job function for us. Poison control centers serve the general public, as well as veterinarians and other health care providers, by providing information on poisonings and offering treatment advice to clinicians treating poisoned patients."
Q. What are some of the most common poisons that you come across?
A. "Chocolate is one of the most common, especially during holidays like Halloween, Valentine’s Day and Christmas. Many toxins are regional. In Southern California, I see many dogs poisoned by snail and slug baits and rat poisons. Unfortunately, acetaminophen poisoning is still quite common in cats."
Q. Do you have a specialty?
A. "I am particularly interested in how heavy metals affect animal health. Mercury is a toxic heavy metal sometimes found in pet foods that are seafood-based, and cats are especially sensitive to its toxic effects.
Although academic diagnostic labs will always be one of the primary employers of veterinary toxicologists, I also believe that pet owners, veterinarians and the general public can benefit immensely from the services of a veterinary toxicologist. Once an animal becomes poisoned, it can be very, very difficult to treat it successfully with a good outcome. It's far easier to prevent the exposure from ever happening — and that’s where I think we are most useful. Offering educational services, and helping pet owners poison-proof their homes, is a very important service that we provide."
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