In the last several hundred years, there has been a massive increase in the number of animals kept purely for companionship and pleasure. Once, pets were considered expendable… now, for most of us, they are virtually irreplaceable. A gradual change in human living from nomadic hunter to settled farmer began approximately 8,000 years ago in the so-called Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Working dogs would have been increasingly valued in this setting, but at about this time the cat also became loosely associated with humans. Houses, barns, and grain stores provided a new environmental niche that was rapidly exploited by mice and other small mammals, the favored prey of small wild felids. Cats that followed these rodents into human settlements would have been tolerated – and possibly encouraged – because of their usefulness in getting rid of these troublesome pests.
Pet ownership by the ruling or noble classes has a long history, dating back at least as far as ancient Egyptian times. Murals from this era depict pharaohs keeping companion animals. Many generations of Chinese emperors kept dogs that, were tended to by their own servants. Greek and Roman nobility were also avid pet keepers.
As civilizations developed, human-animal relationships became more symbolic and less central to human life, and with this change came the view that humans had dominion over all animals. Although animals lost much of their religious and cultural importance, some animals remained closely associated with humans, but subtly, in the role of companions.
People have come to depend on animals for food, clothing, and transportation. So it all makes sense that care for animals was predicated on growing importance of them in human development. It is hard not to think that with acceptance of animals as our partners that humans would not have created a profession to secure that investment.
Many of us are familiar with James Herriot, the pseudonym of the late English veterinary surgeon James Alfred Wight, who wrote the ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ a series of semi-autobiographical books about his life as a Vet which were later turned into a television series of the same name. To most pet owners and veterinary professionals today, the fascinating tales of the life of a pre-second world war vet seem very distantly removed from how we care for our pets today.
It is certainly fair to say that today’s veterinarians would stand little chance of understanding or administering many of the now obsolete treatment protocols of the past, much as the vets of James Herriot’s era would feel very out of place in our modern, technologically equipped world. Like human medical science, the face of veterinary care has changed dramatically since the Second World War, and while the core skills of nursing, administering treatment and handling animals of all shapes and sizes remain universal, how veterinary professionals go about doing that, and the tools that they now have at their disposal are quite different!
But a lot of the changes are less technological and scientific, and more sociological; how we feel about animals has changed greatly over the last eighty years which has had as great an effect or perhaps even greater than any scientific discoveries. Here are a few changes and discoveries that have altered the face of veterinary care over recent history.
The most significant development has been the shift in public consciousness from regarding animals as almost exclusively working beasts or to provide something for people, to the appreciation of animals as pets… even part of the family unit. When companion animal medicine was in its infancy few people were able to afford to own a animal purely as a pet. Farming was big business, and owning an animal as a pet was considered a big luxury. Now people are much more inclined to spend a significant amount of time and money on their veterinary treatments, which in turn has shaped the way that veterinary medicine has evolved to treat our pets. Pet insurance had not even been thought of until recently and now it is a multi million dollar industry!
The discovery of both antibiotics and penicillin are two things that have had a massive effect on veterinary care. The discovery of these drugs came with various setbacks such as the discovery of bacterial resistance to antibiotics and the mutation of super-strains of bugs, such as MRSA but penicillin and antibiotics still has a huge effect on how we medicate our pets today.
The large-scale promotion of spaying and neutering is a relatively recent concept in terms of veterinary and pet care history; now, it is considered very much standard to have pets spayed or neutered, and more unusual not to. In fact until around just thirty years ago, this was not the case, and spending the time and money to have a pet neutered was often not even given any thought.
Vaccinations against a range of preventable conditions and diseases is another huge area of advancement. By and large the general population of pets such as dogs and cats now live longer, are generally healthier, and a wide range of transmissible diseases and conditions have been almost entirely eradicated.
And the technology that you will see in the average veterinary clinic really bears witness to how far we have come and how the crossovers between human and veterinary medicine have been used to benefit both animals and humankind. The MRI machines, ultrasound scanners and x-ray equipment all got there thanks to research and advancements made in human medical care; a traffic that is by no means all one way. Today, veterinary research and advancements, such as the pioneering neuro-orthopaedic work, are having a profound effect on the face of human medical treatment too.
When you consider how far both human medicine and veterinary treatment has come over the course of the last eight decades it is only natural to wonder what developments and advances might be made over the course of the current century… And how the vets of today, who are shaping the technology and advancements of the future, will play a part in this.