ALLS CHURCH, Va — When it’s time for your pet to get a routine checkup, you visit a local veterinarian for an exam. If the vet suspects a possibly serious medical situation – like a lump on your dog’s leg – blood work may be ordered or a mass surgically removed and sent to a lab. Your vet later receives the results from a veterinary pathologist, who specializes in identifying diseases in animal tissues and body fluids.
“It’s difficult for pet owners and military working dog handlers because their companion animal can’t tell them what’s wrong,” said Col. Derron ‘Tony’ Alves, DVM and DACVP, who is a U.S. Army veterinary pathologist. “That’s where I come in. Our diagnosis adds to the clinical plan and may affect treatment options.”
Alves’ first introduction to military veterinary medicine came in the eighth grade as a Red Cross volunteer at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia. He knew he wanted to grow up and be like the Army veterinarian who showed him around the installation’s clinic. Later, in veterinary medical school, Alves decided to further his training by specializing in veterinary pathology, where he looks through a microscope to determine what disease or condition an animal has – or did have, while living.
Alves currently serves as director for the Department of Defense Veterinary Pathology Residency Program, within the Defense Health Agency’s Joint Pathology Center. Initially established under the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in 1949, this department is the only veterinary specialty among 20 “human” pathology sub-specialties. And, it’s the only place in the DoD that trains Army veterinarians to become veterinary pathologists through a three-year, postdoctoral residency training program and consultation service.
“The residency program runs a diagnostic service for animals in the DoD, for service members’ pets, and handles all military working dog specimens from across the globe,” said Alves.
Once residents graduate and become board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Pathologists, Alves says they go on to directly support military-relevant medical research at a DoD research institute.
According to Alves, veterinary pathologists “see anything and everything” – including specimens surgically removed following diagnostic procedures, such as ultrasound or radiographs. They also analyze tissue taken from autopsies. Like a human hospital, the diagnostic process includes collecting information, discussing the animal patient cases, making a final conclusion based on microscopic examination of tissue, and delivering a diagnosis to the clinical veterinarian.
“Skin biopsies are the most routine samples sent for analysis,” Alves said. “Pet owners and military working dog handlers commonly see and feel lesions while petting their animal.”
Since 75 percent of significant emerging diseases impacting humans originate in animals, Alves says veterinary pathologists are uniquely trained and familiar with disease in tissues, along with how they are transmitted. Being well-versed in animal health also directly supports military research initiatives for human health.
“If there is a drug or vaccine in development,” said Alves, “it’s tested on an animal model before humans to determine whether there could be issues with it, or if it needs to be administered differently. If there are adverse reactions, tha particular drug or vaccine won’t be considered for clinical trials in humans.”
Alves says studying the effects of Anthrax, Ebola, sarin gas, or mustard gas in animal tissues helps inform veterinary pathologists about disease processes and makes them a valuable resource.
“Military veterinary pathologists work on some of the most highly infectious and dangerous agents in the world,” said Alves. “Some agents link to national security interests, or support warfare countermeasures development.”
Alves is proud to serve in what he calls a very specialized and important niche of the DoD.
“We don’t know what we’re going to get until we look in a microscope,” said Alves. “I really enjoy that part of the job, including leading the next generation of military veterinary pathologists. I like helping them put the puzzle together.”