A veterinary surgeon deals with the health and welfare of animals; they diagnose and treat diseases and injuries in household pets, livestock, zoo animals and wildlife. They also promote public health by fighting diseases which can be transmitted from animals to humans and by inspecting livestock and food processing procedures to make sure the food supply is safe. Some vets work on wildlife preservation and conservation, whilst others work in research to find the causes and ways to prevent and cure diseases.
Veterinary medicine is more challenging than human medicine as a vet must be familiar with the anatomy and diseases of many different species. They have to know which treatment is appropriate for which species as it could be ineffective or harmful for another species. They have to be good at medicine and surgery and know all fields of medicine such as dentistry, dermatology, obstetrics, anaesthesiology and plastic surgery. They have to be able to diagnose and treat an animal without the patient being able to tell them what is wrong.
For as long as people and animals have been living and working together, there has been a desire to heal animals when they have been sick or injured. There are Chinese writing dating back to about 2,500 BC describing diseases of horses, oxen and buffalo. Indian art from 4,000 years ago show men looking after horses and elephants and Ancient Egyptian art showing them caring for their cattle and dogs.
Cultures that need animals for food, farming and transportation, unsurprisingly, needed to find ways to keep their animals fit and well. The Ancient Romans even had a word for those who looked after sick animals, veterinarius. The first veterinary book was written in about AD 500 by a Roman on the work of a veterinarius. The second veterinary book was written in 1598 by an Italian called Carlo Ruini, his book was called ‘Anatomy of the Horse’.
The original vets were the farriers. They did the job of the vet as well as shoeing horses, working with the horses’ injuries and illnesses, learning their skills on the job. Some of the treatments they used was primitive and could cause more harm than good. Farriers outnumbered trained vets before and long after the first veterinary schools were opened.
The first veterinary school was opened in Europe in the mid-eighteenth century. It was in Lyon in France, Charles Benoit Vial de St Bel was the first principal of the new college, and the first horse was admitted for treatment in 1793.
The Royal Veterinary College was founded in London in 1791. The College first acquired royal patronage from King George IV, and was granted a Charter of Incorporation in 1875.
It is only in the last 30 years that it has become common for women to become vets. This is the same for all the medical professions, when my mother graduation from Newcastle University as a dentist in 1964, she was only one of six women on the course. Vets that treated pets exclusively were rare 50 years ago, most looked after livestock. In fact before the Second World War, most people wouldn’t spend much money on the medical care of their pets. Nowadays, most of the vets graduating from veterinary schools are women and most earn their living treating pet dogs, cats and horses. Many people insure their pets so that they can afford treatment for them that could cost many thousands of pounds.