Infectious-disease expert at Colorado State University earns high honor for veterinary work

Dr. Michael Lappin, a Colorado State University veterinarian and noted infectious-disease expert, believes that healthy and happy pets boost the health and happiness of their owners.

“I hope my research will continue to show that pet ownership is safe for all people and that the personal health benefits far outweigh the potential risks of infectious disease transmission,” said Lappin, a professor of infectious disease in the CSU Department of Clinical Sciences.

For his work and its impact, Lappin recently received the 2014 Robert W. Kirk Award from the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. The award, presented at a national conference in Nashville, Tenn., recognizes diplomates of the college for outstanding career achievements and dedicated service to veterinary medicine.

“It blows me away to be recognized in this way,” said Lappin, who works at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “In academia, we are surrounded by the best of the best. There are probably 500 other people deserving of this award. To be singled out is quite the surprise and honor.”

Lappin, also a research administrator in the CSU Department of Clinical Sciences, has dedicated nearly three decades to bettering the lives of companion animals and their owners. In that time, he has received more than 125 research grants and has published more than 200 primary research papers.

“Two words come to mind when I think of Mike Lappin: commitment and passion,” said Dr. Wayne Jensen, a fellow veterinarian and associate head of the Department of Clinical Sciences.

Much of Lappin’s research and teaching focuses on cats. He seeks to understand how the feline immune system responds to vaccines against infectious diseases, including respiratory viruses. He also studies how disease-causing viruses and bacteria are transmitted and how the infections they cause may be successfully treated.

Lappin’s laboratory also provides diagnostic testing for several infectious agents, helping to identify the pathogens that cause toxoplasmosis, cat scratch disease and ehrlichiosis, among other diseases. Called zoonoses, these diseases are important because they sicken both animals and people.

In yet another role, Lappin oversees the shelter medicine program at CSU with two other faculty members; he leads programs aimed at understanding the hows and whys of infectious-disease outbreaks in animal shelters, and the management steps needed to prevent illness among at-risk populations of unwanted and stray pets.

Lappin holds the Kenneth W. Smith Professorship in Small Animal Clinical Veterinary Medicine. He used it to establish the CSU Center for Companion Animal Studies, which promotes quality of life for pets – and, indirectly, for their human owners – by supporting studies of new diagnostic tests, new treatments and new vaccines for common diseases.

The center annually distributes industry-donated research funds to CSU veterinary students, clinical interns and residents, graduate students and faculty members. The Young Investigator Award program advances both pet health and the careers of aspiring and young veterinarians.

“My vision was to create a center to help my departmental colleagues achieve their clinical research goals,” Lappin said. “The overarching goal is to provide shared equipment, research technician support and seed money for projects that might lead to larger external grants.”

The center is Lappin’s way of helping young veterinarians get a jump start on finding and pursuing their clinical research interests. The approach makes sense for a veterinarian who credits his own mentors for helping to ignite and shape his career.

“It’s all about the mentorship I received,” Lappin said. “I always had a strong interest in science, but was never sure what to do with it. My mentors helped me identify my strengths and align my interests to get me where I am today.”

Lappin was 14 years old when the veterinary seed was planted at a dude ranch in Oklahoma, where he worked closely with his first mentor, a rancher who would one day write him a letter of recommendation to attend veterinary school at Oklahoma State University.

His love for working with animals evolved during vet school, ultimately emerging as a career in internal medicine and a focus on infectious disease in pets. Lappin now hopes he can help a new generation of veterinary students find what interests them most.

“I hope to lead future veterinary students by example,” he said.