Veterinary pathologist Ross Smart gets about 3,000 requests for help each year. His usual clients are cows and horses, but he never turns down a parakeet or a chinchilla.
Smart directs the Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Utah State University."The laboratory has served veterinarians and livestock owners for about 70 years," he said. "It began with testing for brucellosis in cattle in the 1920s. Today, we do everything related to disease problems in livestock, companion animals and wild animals."
The laboratory has its human parallel in the state Department of Health, Smart said. Its function is not to treat disease but to identify and keep records on disease problems. Its primary constituency is Utah, but it also serves limited areas of Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming. A branch laboratory is in Provo.
"We provide a service," Smart said. "Our operational funding comes from state appropriations and nominal service fees."
Most diagnoses of animal diseases are made by veterinary practitioners in the field or the clinic, he added.
The laboratory at USU gets the difficult cases or does tests that a practitioner is unable to do because of lack of facilities or expertise, Smart said.
Most requests for services come from veterinarians; however, specimens may be submitted directly by animal disease regulatory agencies, public health agencies, wildlife agencies, laboratory animal caretakers, animal research units and livestock and pet owners.
The lab is open weekdays but is ready to provide emergency service any time, he said.
A given day's work might involve detailed postmortem examination of horses, sheep or cattle that have died of unknown causes.
Smart's days often include such things as serum and blood testing, cancer biopsies or sperm analysis. He is an expert in bacteriology, virology, toxicology and parasitology.
If an owner takes a cat with an intestinal problem to an animal clinic, a fecal sample may be sent to Smart's laboratory. With the diagnosis of coccidiosis, the veterinarian knows what to prescribe to treat it. If an owner takes a dog with a skin growth to an animal clinic, a biopsy sample may be sent to Smart's laboratory. With a diagnosis of a highly treatable skin cancer, the veterinarian knows how to proceed.
In addition to the expected horses, cattle, sheep, dogs and cats, laboratory personnel have done postmortem examinations of chickens, turkeys, parakeets, mice, rabbits, rats, chinchillas, deer, muskrats, bats, geese, pheasants, camels, pigs and wild ducks.
"The success or failure of our laboratory personnel may well depend on the observations and skill of the veterinarian who does the original necropsy and sampling," Smart said. "The more information we have and the better the condition of the carcass or specimen, the better the job we can do.
Some diseases identified at the laboratory, such as rabies, have implications for human health. Reports are filed regularly with state regulatory officials. By monitoring diseases, the laboratory spots new diseases and alerts veterinarians and animal owners about potential problems.