State Veterinarian Says New Lab Could Better Serve Montanans

May 10, 2019

Montana’s only veterinary diagnostic laboratory plays a big role identifying diseases in livestock and pets. But their current facility in Bozeman is aging and has limited space. With a recently-hired, full-time director, the lab hopes to construct a new building to better serve the needs of animal owners and veterinarians across the state.

Marty Zaluski, the State Veterinarian, walks into the lab where they check animal blood samples for diseases. Plastic test tubes containing various hues of reddish-brown liquid rest on the black lab tables. Light reflects off glass beakers and flasks lining the shelves.

“This is probably our busiest section out of the entire laboratory because this is where brucellosis testing for cattle happen and also where a lot of our equine or horse testing happens,” Zaluski says.

He explains they test about 90,000 samples of blood from cattle and bison every year for brucellosis, a bacterial disease.

The veterinary diagnostic lab — or VDL — is the only full-service lab in Montana that can test samples from veterinarians and perform post-mortem examinations to discover the cause of animal deaths. Not every state has one of these labs. And without it, Montana’s veterinarians and animal owners would have to ship samples across state borders. This could cost more money and take more time to get results.

But the VDL building is over 50 years old, and Zaluski says its outdated design and lack of space limits what his team could do.

He walks into the prep lab down the hall.

“You can see this facility looks like you know a laboratory space I would have used in high school in the 80s and it it would been a little dated by then,” says Zaluski.

He says the salmon pink floor tiles have asbestos in them, and there are some other challenges as well.

“We know which pieces of equipment to plug in when because if you plug them all into the same time, they’ll overload the circuits. So there are some challenges to infrastructure in that regards.”

Zaluski emphasizes the staff have figured out how to make do with what they have, but a new facility would help them offer more services and do their jobs safer and quicker. He says a new lab could cost between $25 and $30 million. The state legislature hasn’t provided funding yet, but they’re looking at private funders and authorized $100,000 for engineering blueprints.

“An old mentor used to tell me you have to paint a picture before you can sell it, and ultimately that’s what we’re doing here," says Zaluski. "So while we didn’t necessarily get the funding for a facility this legislative session, I think we have a number of areas we can build on.”

In the meantime, he and the new lab director, Greg Juda, want to make it easier and faster for veterinarians to send samples and receive information.

“Certainly an online submission is something that we’re currently working on," says Juda. "We also want to improve our reporting times so our turnaround times on testing. So we’ve started to track those metrics and we’re looking to put into place programs to make ourselves more efficient."

Juda says one of the benefits of having a VDL in Montana is they can receive samples from anywhere in the state with overnight shipping. Faster results means ranchers can isolate infected animals from the herd sooner to prevent disease outbreaks.

Juda is the VDL’s first full-time director. In the past, a single employee managed the science side of the lab along with the administrative duties. State Veterinarian Zaluski says breaking those duties up is the start of something new for the lab and the state.

“When there are slides to be looked at, those will always get the priority over actually doing the business end of things," says Zaluski. "I’m really excited about the fact that Greg can commit his full efforts to looking at how this operation serves the needs of Montanans.”

Zaluski says they hope to drum up support and funding for a new facility by the next legislative session.