In British Columbia, when something mysterious has killed or sickened an animal – whether a fish, bird or mammal – the scientists at the Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford are the ones who often get the call. The centre, which employs 35 people, houses the provincial veterinary diagnostic laboratory and has high-level accreditation found only at two other facilities in the country. Each year, it accepts 6,000 case submissions of a variety of species. It doesn’t matter if the animal is wild or domestic, a family pet or destined for the dinner table, pathologists see a diverse cross-section of the province’s fauna. On the day of a visit by a News reporter, one of the centre’s nine pathologists is examining a dead skunk, its smell permeating the entire facility.
The centre’s diagnostic lab is actually a cluster of more than half a dozen different rooms, each with their own function. Viruses used in diagnostic tests are kept cooled to -70 C in massive stand-up freezers, a huge electron microscope takes very fine images of viruses, and clusters of bacteria are grown in climate-controlled fridge-like appliances. One of the most important additions to pathologists’ toolkits in recent years is a “thermal cycler” that analyzes DNA of diseases in order to confirm diagnoses.
Victoria Bowes, an animal pathologist who first trained as a veterinarian, says she often follows her well-developed intuition when trying to make a diagnosis. But the targets keep moving, as viruses and other killers of creatures morph and adapt in response to antibiotics and vaccines.
“Certain diseases that maybe didn’t cause a problem in the past have suddenly emerged to become a problem,” she said. “It keeps me humble because just when you think it’s easy, something will come along.”
Industry shifts are also seen in the birds that come before Bowes, with free-run or antibiotic-free chickens susceptible to different diseases than those kept in cages.
For the province and Abbotsford’s agriculture industry, the lab performs a vital role in ensuring the safety and marketability of the food destined for people’s plates by testing for diseases like avian flu, swine flu, and mad cow disease that can close borders and, if not eradicated, put farmers out of business.