Being a veterinary pathologist

Published on October 6th, 2011
Being a veterinary pathologist

June Williams is a veterinary pathologist. She has been in this industry for several years. June always wanted to be a veterinarian, specifically so that she could treat her own horses. As a student, she was fascinated by pathology, so decided to make a career out of it. With a strong artistic and logical side, June feels that this animal-focused career is the perfect one for her.  We asked her a few questions.

What exactly does a veterinary pathologist do?
All the veterinary pathology laboratories in South Africa offer a diagnostic service, so a veterinary pathologist’s job description is to try and find the cause of death of animals, be it birds, fish, domestic animals, exotic and zoo animals, or even game. We have to do post mortem (after death) examinations on dead animals as soon as possible after death, to find out what is wrong, and take specimens for a variety of tests, before they are too decomposed. We do this to gain knowledge to prevent diseases in other animals by treating or managing living animals, which may have been associated with the dead animal/s. Sometimes this involves using or developing various vaccines.”

What qualification do you need to pursue a career in this field?
To become a veterinary pathologist, you will need to do a BVSc degree and specialise in Pathology after completing your degree. Good school results in Grade 11 and 12 are vitally important, if you want to get into veterinary science.

What do the working opportunities look like in this field?
As a veterinary pathologist one may currently work in South Africa at one of four specialist practices in the country, the Veterinary Faculty at Onderstepoort, or the state veterinary services. All veterinarians qualifying at Onderstepoort have had good basic undergraduate training in Pathology and can do proper post mortems themselves, and take the required specimens for analysis.

How much can I expect to earn?
Veterinary pathologists can earn from R12 000 to R50 000 or more per month, depending on experience.

What are the pros and cons of the job?
According to June, “The pros are that it is incredibly interesting and challenging, as it keeps changing. We are at the forefront of changes in parasites and diseases, especially now with the effects of global warming on the environment. The cons are the smell, the blood, the bodily fluids, the fact that you could catch a disease, if you’re not careful, and that there is so much knowledge, that you can’t know everything. We have to consult text books, scientific articles and experts regularly to help make diagnoses.”

What does a normal day at work look like?
On an average day, June may do post mortems on a variety of animals. “I also do some microscopic work, interpret results from tests done at other labs, write reports on the findings and prepare and examine biopsy specimens.”

You should consider this career if you are a curious person, able to solve problems and can use all your senses, then this could be the career for you. But before you hop into this career, make sure you are not squeamish. You will also need good visual perception skills, good report-writing and people skills, and the ability to identify different tissues and “lesions” (what we call abnormalities seen in various diseases). You also need to be an analytical thinker.

Words of advice to aspiring Veterinary Pathologists?
June advises, “Know what you love, know what you really have a passion for, investigate what is possible and try and follow that as your dream. Find your talents and do everything you can to follow them. Just know that there will be times in every career when it is not great but at least you are doing what you are passionate about. If you can do what you love and love what you do every day of your life you will not have regrets or be unhappy.”

Words supplied by SA Career Focus