Veterinary toxicology is a branch of veterinary science which is focused on the study of poisons which affect animals. Veterinary toxicologists research environmental hazards, drug interactions which can lead to toxicity, and chemical compounds which can injure or kill animals. Because every species is different, specialists in veterinary toxicology may opt to focus on a specific species or a particular group of animals, such as pets, livestock, or working animals.
Toxins can work in a wide variety of ways. Some attack the central nervous system, others inhibit respiration or stop the heart, some attack the vascular system and cause hemorrhage, and others work in other ways. Although humans and animals share some genetic material, some of the toxins which impact humans cause no effect in animals, and vice versa. A key part of veterinary toxicology involves understanding animal metabolism and other aspects of animal biology to learn how and why toxins affect different animals.
In nature, toxins can include compounds produced by plants in self defense, mycotoxins made by fungi, toxic minerals, and toxins made by organisms such as bacteria. Animals can be exposed to such toxins by eating them, inhaling them, or rubbing them into wounds. One aspect of veterinary toxicology involves identifying toxins present in the natural world, learning which animals they affect and how they work, and educating people so that they can learn to avoid them. Farmers, for example, must watch their fields for toxic plants which cattle, horses, and sheep might otherwise eat.
Compounds produced by humans are also a concern. For example, components in antifreeze are toxic to dogs and cats, and the naturally sweet flavor of antifreeze can make it appealing. Veterinary toxicologists successfully pushed to have bitter flavorings added to antifreeze so that household pets would not be injured or killed by consuming antifreeze spills. Many human-produced poisons used for purposes like controlling insects and weeds can also injure animals.
The development of veterinary pharmaceuticals also requires experts in veterinary toxicology. These practitioners work on pharmaceutical projects to help developers avoid the production of drugs which could injure animals, and they also identify compounds which may interact and cause complications. Veterinary toxicology is also concerned with developing appropriate doses for veterinary medications and establishing warnings for medications which can become dangerous; for example, topical flea prevention formulations intended for use in dogs can be dangerous in cats.
Protection of wildlife is another concern for veterinary toxicologists. While wild animals are generally familiar with the natural toxins in their environment and know how to avoid them, they are vulnerable to poisons introduced by humans, ranging from poisoned bait set out to kill wildlife to pollution. When a population of wild animals is endangered or threatened, it is important to study the toxins which can affect that population.
People in this field usually have advanced degrees. Some are doctors of veterinary medicine, while others may have PhDs in veterinary toxicology, and some have both degrees.