Craig Carter, director of the
University of Kentucky Veterinary
Practicing veterinarians don’t always have the same resources a human doctor associated with a health system or hospital has; they can’t usually afford it. That was a lot of the reasoning for creating university and state-based diagnostic labs back in the 1950s.
“Vets reached a point where they could only offer so much service to their clients,” said Craig Carter, director of the University of Kentucky Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. “They couldn’t confirm a diagnosis in the field without lab work. So these labs have become the mainstay for practicing veterinarians and in some cases, farmers themselves.”
Carter, a 30-year veteran in diagnostic veterinary medicine, has served as the UK VDL director since 2007, when the lab was called the Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center. He likes to think of the VDL as the veterinarian’s veterinarian.
“We’re providing diagnostics that give vets and farmers confidence in knowing what they are dealing with, so they can prevent it from happening in the future, and so we can prevent disease spread in general,” he said.
Michelle Arnold, UK’s extension ruminant veterinarian, has made it her mission to stay in the know on the latest research, state and federal directives, new diagnostic tests, and treatment options and then get the information into a usable form.
“My most important role with the VDL is communication,” she said. “Veterinarians are trained to diagnose disease by a systematic approach based on history, physical examination, and diagnostic testing. At the UK VDL, we are here to provide the tests and results needed as quickly and accurately as possible and get the information back to the veterinarians in the field where they need it. Our necropsy service is invaluable for diagnosis of unexplained animal deaths, especially in an outbreak situation such as calf diarrhea or contagious mastitis that can spread rapidly within a herd.”
Carter wants people to see the lab as more than a place that disposes of deceased animals.
“Yes, we do a lot of necropsies at the lab, but I think the message we want to communicate is that it’s not just a disposal process,” he explained. “It’s a very complex and high-tech analysis of every part of an animal, which gives veterinarians and farmers the information they need to protect other at-risk animals through vaccination, treatment, and altering farm management practices.”
Carter said they really try to help the veterinarian help the farmer make sure more animals don’t die.
Stuart Brown, a field veterinarian with Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, sees more than 100 equine patients each day. He believes his relationship with the UK VDL is vital.
“The VDL is essential for the work of daily practitioners,” Brown said. “We rely on the information from results of clinical testing and necropsy reports as our front line for early disease recognition and outbreak prevention. Without its presence, we lose our ability to identify patterns of disease emergence. The laboratory’s ability to compile data from submitted cases throughout the Central Kentucky region allows us to identify risk factors that help us avoid further livestock losses for animal caregivers.”
Large and Small
The lab provides diagnostics for all food animal species and even companion animals. Although horses and cattle are big business in the Bluegrass, many Kentuckians may be surprised to know it’s the poultry industry that is actually the biggest moneymaker in the state—generating more than $800 million from operations in more than 40 counties. In fact, UK VDL serology section chief Margaret Steinman said more than half of the world’s poultry genetics can be traced to Kentucky.
At the VDL, Steinman and her staff support commercial poultry growers by performing regulatory testing in accordance with the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Poultry Improvement Plan. Lab staff monitors salmonella, as well, in commercial poultry houses.
“Usually the big commercial farms are not areas where there’s much disease,” Steinman said. “Those flocks are highly protected and their disease prevention programs are top notch. The place where you’re more likely to find disease problems is the smaller, backyard flocks.”
To that end, the VDL is trying to reach out to backyard growers through the Kentucky Poultry Federation and local veterinarians.
Margaret Steinman, serology
Lynne Cassone, pathologist
“Usually these smaller, hobby-type growers experience a lot of bird losses before they seek our help,” said VDL pathologist Lynne Cassone. “We’re trying to get the word out to them. They need us; we want to help them protect their birds and other bird populations around them. The commercial growers even want the smaller growers to participate with us to let us know what kind of problems they are experiencing, so everyone knows what kinds of diseases are circulating.”
Steinman added that if the lab doesn’t know what diseases are out there, they can’t be much help to veterinarians, and then the vets can’t be much help to their clients.
Other Kentucky animal industries, such as goats and sheep, have seen growth in recent years and are reaching out to the VDL. Beth Johnson, a large animal vet for more than 20 years, practices in Boyle County and regularly uses the VDL. Recently she’s been doing more work with small ruminants.
“With the explosion of small ruminant herd health in Kentucky, the UK Veterinary Diagnostic Lab has been instrumental in assisting Kentucky veterinarians in management decisions for producers based on their diagnostic findings,” she said. “Regarding small ruminant work, many producers do not feel that parasitism is so important. It has helped to have historical evidence of the importance of parasite infestation when you are speaking to producers, and the diagnostic lab is very helpful in providing statistics about this disease process.”
Under Carter’s leadership, the UK VDL has developed Kentucky’s first fully integrated animal health information and surveillance system. Lab personnel analyze information they gather from cases at the VDL, the Breathitt Veterinary Center in Hopkinsville, and farm-level reports from veterinarians.
“The system fuses a lot of animal health data streams and other communications we have from vets and producers,” Carter said. “It gives us a unique vantage point to be able to assimilate all that data and find ways of pushing it back to our vets and farmers. We are really the only state doing anything like this right now, and we feel it could become a model for the entire nation.”
The system allows the lab to generate automated alerts to the state veterinarian and other stakeholders, which helps mount a rapid response to emerging diseases and provide early detection of possible agroterrorism threats. The VDL is capable of diagnosing diseases animals can pass to humans, thus making it a critical component to protecting Kentuckians’ health.
Carter and the VDL faculty
and staff support
in the Trenches
To further support veterinarians in the field, the lab is developing an application for mobile devices such as smart tablets and phones. Jackie Cassady joined the staff in 2010 to get the project off the ground.
“Right now, we’re trying to figure out what mobile devices are available and what devices food animal vets are using in the field,” Cassady said. “We want to know if they are even able to access their data when they travel and if it would be useful for them to have wireless and remote access to the laboratory.”
Cassady is working to build a diagnostics database into the application as a way for vets to narrow down the possibilities.
“More and more, students are graduating from vet school with smart devices in their hands,” Carter said. “They are adopting new technology at warp speed, and we’re trying to meet them where they are. It (the application) is a high-tech way of pushing information to the vets and interacting more closely with our ‘army’ out there who are actually seeing and touching the animals.”
The veterinarian would make selections from progressive menus that narrow down the diagnosis and then, based on the tests the vet requests, the application will tell them what specimens to collect and how those need to be packaged and transported.
“The development of the new application as a diagnostic tool in the field has tremendous potential,” Arnold said. “Hopefully as technology improves and we have better broadband service throughout the state, we can interact with the veterinarians in the field via webcams and actually bring the experts in the laboratory face-to-face with the situation as it occurs. The opportunities awaiting us can definitely be summed up in one word—amazing.”
With the expanded lab facilities, Carter said the VDL is in a great position to enhance its services for Kentucky’s animal agriculture industries. One of his highest priorities is to secure funding to purchase the latest instrumentation to support Kentucky animal agriculture with more timely and meaningful diagnostic testing information. ◆