“It isn’t clear why my animal is sick. Now what?” RDAR talks to U of C Vet about livestock diagnostics

RDAR in collaboration with the Provincial government recently funded a project to expand the University of Calgary diagnostic unit to be able to handle more diverse samples. The diagnostic unit will also collect disease surveillance data, which will direct educational and research programs and augment the delivery of a One-Health disease management concept to Alberta.

Have you ever wondered where veterinarians turn to diagnose and manage the health of animals when the diagnosis is not straight forward?  

To help us learn more about a helpful diagnostics program and the services it provides to Alberta livestock producers, University of Calgary Veterinarian Dr. Lindsay Rogers will answer some questions about the Diagnostics Services Unit and a diagnostics pilot project for livestock.

How long has the Diagnostic Services Unit (DSU) been in operation?

The Diagnostic Services Unit (DSU) within the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary (UCVM) was established in 2011 and provides fee-for-service diagnostics for most livestock species. In 2020, they partnered with the Governments of Alberta and Canada in a pilot project to expand services and provide timely veterinary diagnostics to livestock producers within Alberta.

How is this important diagnostics work funded?

 The DSU is funded under by the Canadian Agriculture Partnership (CAP) and Government of Alberta through funds administered by Results Driven Agricultural Research (RDAR).

Veterinary diagnostic testing is a service that is very important to producers because diagnostic testing supports targeted treatment to increase the likelihood of a cure while avoiding the overuse of medications, like antibiotics. This pilot project between the DSU and RDAR and CAP is allowing for the expansion of in-province diagnostic services and increasing their accessibility to diagnostic specialization.

What is diagnostic testing?

Diagnostic testing is the use of sophisticated tests to detect the presence of a disease, the cause of disease in live animals or the cause of death during pathology or monitor the progression of disease. Veterinary diagnostics are those tests performed on animals. Almost everyone has been sent for diagnostic testing by their doctor, for example a blood test, biopsy, or X-ray. Many of the same diagnostic tests that are available to human patients are also available to animals. The reasons for performing diagnostic tests are also similar between humans and animals. The obvious reason is to determine the cause of disease or death, but they can also be used to screen healthy animals and for the surveillance of disease.

What diagnostic tests does the DSU provide?

In animals, samples for diagnostic testing are taken by a veterinarian or veterinary technician and submitted to a laboratory for analysis. The analysis is performed by a veterinary specialist such as a pathologist or microbiologist. Specialists have undergone multiple years of additional training in addition to their veterinary medical degrees to become experts in a specific field of study.

Diagnostic tests can be invasive or non-invasive.

Invasive diagnostic tests involve puncturing the skin or entering the body, such as a blood test or biopsy.

Non-invasive diagnostic tests, or diagnostic imaging, employ modalities that create images of the body without having to enter it. Examples of non-invasive diagnostic tests are X-rays, ultrasound, and MRIs. Non-invasive procedures can be used in conjunction with invasive tests, such as using ultrasound to guide the biopsy of an internal organ.

The following chart describes the different types of diagnostic tests. It gives an example of where each test is used for production animals, and whether they are offered by the DSU. Tests not offered by the DSU are referred to other veterinary diagnostic laboratories.

Diagnostic Tests

Test CategoryDefinitionExampleDSU test?
NecropsyThe examination of animal after its death to determine cause of death. Also called a post-mortem or autopsy.Examination of a litter of aborted piglets & placenta. Samples may be taken during the necropsy for other types of diagnostic tests to come to a diagnosis.Yes*
HistologyThe study of fixed tissues and cells under a microscope.A sample of intestine from a necropsy to characterize the damage from a viral infection.Yes*
MicrobiologyThe study of agents that cause disease – bacteria, viruses, fungi.Swabs from abscesses in sheep are cultured to determine the causative bacteria and assess which antibiotics the bacteria are sensitive to.Yes*
Clinical pathologyLab testing of blood or bodily fluids/tissues with the microscopic evaluation of individual cells to support disease diagnosis.Analysis of urine sample (urinalysis) in a farm animal to assess urinary tract disease.Yes, but not all bodily fluids accepted.
ParasitologyThe study of disease-causing parasites.Fecal samples from a flock of backyard hens are analyzed for parasites.No
SerologyDetection of antibodies or antigens in blood to indicate exposure to infectious disease.Testing a herd of dairy cattle for Johne’s disease.No
Molecular diagnosticsDetection of nucleic acids (DNA/RNA) from infectious agents.A tracheal swab from chickens to detect Infectious Laryngotracheitis Virus via PCR.No
ToxicologyIdentification and characterization of toxins and vitamins/minerals deficiencies.A liver sample from a calf necropsy is analyzed for deficient levels of vitamin E and selenium to confirm White Muscle Disease.No

*Alberta CAP-supported pricing available for livestock with financial support from CAP and RDAR pilot program.

How do I submit a sample?

The samples submitted to the DSU must be submitted by the livestock producer’s veterinarian. 

To learn more about the DSU please visit their webpage. The DSU is open Monday through Friday 8:30am to 4:30pm, closed on holidays and weekends.