Alumni spotlight: Whitney Knauer

May 24, 2019

Whitney Knauer, VMD, ’17 PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), says her PhD from the CVM’s Veterinary Medicine Graduate Program has teed her up for a dynamic job. She joined the CVM’s faculty in the fall of 2017, where she has the freedom to perform research on young ruminants, teach veterinary students how to detect, diagnose and treat cows in the sick pen, and provide mentorship to young women entering the vet med field.

Knauer says a major strength of the Graduate Programs at the CVM is the wide range of research her peers were doing—and hearing them talk about it impacted her own research in unexpected ways. Like her peers, the reason Knauer comes to work every day is to promote animal welfare.

“A veterinary degree makes you uniquely positioned to understand both the consumer’s and the producer’s point of view,” she says. “Understanding and communicating with consumers and producers is what drew me to this work. Being able to bridge the gap between what producers need and what consumers think about what's going on is really, really important.”

Knauer especially values the process of attaining animal welfare within the parameters of producers’ resources—something she carries out in her own research. Currently, she is finding ways to help calves avoid both isolation and disease with unique calf housing management strategies.

“Consumers are very concerned about the implications of calves maturing in isolation,” she says. “One way producers can mitigate that concern is with group housing, but there are some inherent problems with that, such as the risk of disease, or needing to build a whole new barn. One solution is putting calves in a group of only two.” This is a solution researchers have previously tossed around, but Knauer is particularly interested in making it as feasible as possible for producers. She says that many producers can make the switch fairly easily by making a few adjustments. “This could be an immediate, viable solution that improves the welfare of calves and satisfies concerned consumers.”

Knauer and her team are trying to understand the benefits of this novel approach through weaning and into the heifers’ teenage lives. She carried out a pilot study at the campus dairy from November to April, looking at calves from birth to four months of age. “We are gearing up to do a study this summer on a commercial dairy, where we will look at the age of pairing and its impact on calf performance and behavior,” Knauer says. Once again, she and her team will look at what happens when calves are housed in a group of two, but this time, in a larger setting. “Our goal is to investigate calf health in these systems, and to understand the impact of implementation of this housing system on a larger scale.”

While Knauer started out in undergrad passionate about calves, her interest has also expanded to goats. She’s also researching pain management for painful procedures, such as disbudding, that are performed on most goat kids. “We did a trial over spring break where we looked at six  different pain protocols—using things like local anesthesia, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, or sedation, and their combinations—and we are still working on analyzing that data,” she says. “We are trying to find something that provides pain relief to the kids, and is practical for producers to implement. We plan to test the best protocol—as it relates to pain relief—on a  commercial goat dairy next spring to see if it improves health or performance of goat kids.”

But Knauer is quick to point out that academia isn’t necessarily the only route after completing a veterinary medical graduate degree. She says that, when she was a student at the CVM, the Graduate Programs did a great job of highlighting recent graduates and other alumni, bringing them in to talk about where they are, what they are doing, and where their career has taken them. “It was eye opening in that there was a lot of diversity in what people were doing with their degrees.”

Knauer’s top-notch work as a faculty member is right at home at the CVM. “Whether you are talking about cow numbers or milk production, Minnesota is a top state in dairy,” she says, “and that’s part of what led me here in the first place.”