From Jame Herriot to the Bondi Vet- how and why the veterinary profession changed so radically in just 60 years.

I recently read the latest edition of the Vet Record, the Journal of the British Veterinary Association published weekly since 1888, and I was struck by a couple of features. The first was how advanced the research, clinical and surgical procedures have become in recent years. The second was the change in the types of animals receiving these modern treatments— from farm animals to companion animals or pets like dogs and cats. There are many reasons for this shift that have to do with our changing culture, the urbanisation of society and our relationships with animals. And also the modernisation of agriculture and animal farming, the intensification and globalisation of animal production, and neoliberal processes removing state veterinary systems from many countries. (I am speaking from a European Australian perspective about institutional veterinary systems in this section, which could also apply to many developed countries. The Australian First Nations people have their own medical and veterinary traditions which is not my knowledge to share.)

If we think back to our grandparent’s or great-grandparents’ time, animals occupied a very different place in the family. I am giving a broad generalisation here, and there would be many differences between regions, cultures and families. Farms often consisted of small scale mixed agriculture of crops, orchards, market gardens, grain and hay production and animal production. Working and farm animals (horses, mules, cows, chickens, pigs, sheep) were not considered sentient. Modern ethology and zoology research had yet to demonstrate their complex emotional, cognitive and social lives. Their existence was predicated on what they could do for us in terms of producing food, fibre and labour. Large scale graziers cleared land to graze cattle and sheep primarily. Production animals were usually killed when food was needed, or their production of dairy and wool declined with age, or were sold for income. Working or draft animals were mostly well treated as long as they could work. Animal welfare laws protecting them from cruelty existed but were rarely enforced. The farm dog may or may not be allowed in the house, and was often shot if they became too ill, old or injured to work or fend for themselves. If finances and food allowed, another class of dog, a smaller indoor pet might have graced the parlour or the children’s rooms and laps. Cats worked to control rodents in the farm and house. They were semi-feral, and might be fed table scraps or might fend for themselves.

“Steady the Thirsty Mob” by Hugh Sawrey

The farmer or farrier administered basic treatments. Institutional veterinary care was scarce, both because the vets were few, and the treatments unaffordable or rudimentary. The small, government veterinary workforce was primarily occupied with supporting military animals like horses, and large scale graziers and farmers. They concentrated on herd health, disease surveillance and control, meat, egg and dairy hygiene, and increasing production through breeding programs and other research. Zoonotic diseases like TB, rabies and scabies were also under the responsibility of state veterinarians. Slowly private (non-governmental) veterinarians appeared after the second world war, providing clinical and surgical treatments to farms, large graziers, horse breeders and trainers, and to a lesser extent, small animals, although these are often in larger cities like Sydney. Most private veterinary practices were initially “large animal” ie farm animals and horses, and slowly became “mixed” in the second half of the 20th century, that is they treated a mix of farm animals, horses, and small animals. This mixed practice is what we read about in James Herriot’s books. Small animal veterinarians started to appear in the mid 20th century and the first small animal veterinary association was formed in 1967.

As Australia’s wealth and its population grew in the latter half of the 20th century, so did urban migration. Cities and large towns excluded most farm animals from their boundaries, but retained horses particularly for racing, and companion animals. These urban dwellers increasingly kept pets for companionship, protection and rodent control. The human-animal bond that developed from the close confinements with pets changed our relationship to dogs and cats to become more like family members than farm animals. This drove increased demand for quality medical care for these new family members and veterinary teaching institutions adapted to respond. The new burgeoning middle class and their affluence also drove demand for companion animal veterinary care because people could afford to pay for new technologies, diagnostics, medicines and the required equipment. Now the majority of veterinarians work in small animal veterinary clinics and accredited hospitals, some still in mixed or equine practices, and the minority work in large animal veterinary practices or government service. This modern veterinary setting is what we most commonly see on televised veterinary shows like The Bondi Vet or Animal Hospital.

Throughout the same decades, animal farming practices and their attendant veterinary services also underwent a transformation. Modern farming developments led to increased intensification of dairy, pig and poultry farming. The large animal veterinary profession primarily attended to herd and flock disease prevention and increasing production with less attention given to the individual animal’s health and treatments. Zoonotic disease control (diseases spread between animals and humans) was also a priority of governmental veterinary agencies. The small scale mixed farmers were swallowed up by megafarms practicing mono-agriculture and corporate consortiums whose profit-led priorities reduced the individual animals to units of production. Expensive veterinary care was afforded to high value animals only like breeding animals, or in the diagnosis and prevention of communicable diseases to protect the whole herd. Simultaneously, the demands of veterinary life, after hours on call work, mental health awareness, and prioritising family life and children’s education led to many vets moving away from the remote country practices where large animal veterinary work occurred. There was more money to be made from small animal vet work, with less physical hardships. The feminisation of the veterinary profession may play some role in this. Women carry the double burden of full time professional work and undertake the bulk of unpaid care work, on average doing twice as much household labour and four times as much child care labour as men. They require flexibility in their working lives to accommodate this, something that small animal vet clinics can more easily provide. The result is that the majority of veterinarians work in urban small animal veterinary clinics rather then the country mixed practice we grew up watching in “All Creatures Great and Small”. This is another example of how the veterinary profession is embedded in regional socio-cultural environments and is a product of those environment and the associated forces exerted on it.

2019- a bleak year for veterinary suicide worldwide and what is being done about it.

Despite attempts by veterinary associations, veterinary support groups and social services to address the 2-4 times higher rate of suicide amongst veterinarians, the tragedy continues.

In December 2018, the CDC published a study showing that American female veterinarians committed suicide at a rate 3.5 times that of the general population, whereas male veterinarians are 2.1 times more likely to end their lives. A recent article in the Washington Post links mounting debt, compassion fatigue and social media attacks by pet owners as causal factors.

Debt is particular to the USA where privatised higher education leads to veterinarians graduating with an average debt of $143,000, with some as high as $260,000. The American Veterinary Medical Association emphasised that veterinary student debt is part of a larger and more complicated societal issue in the USA where total student loan debt exceeded $1.5 trillion in 2018. This article by the Washington Post describes Robin Stamey’s recent brush with suicide and what led her to make such a drastic choice.

Social media abuse from pet owners is commonly listed amongst the causal factors associated with veterinary stress and suicide. This is a fairly recent social trend and is not confined to the veterinary profession. While there has been much research on cybervictimization in other demographics, no dedicated research has been published on the effect it has on veterinarians and suicide rates.

Elsewhere, in Australia the suicide rate amongst veterinarians is four times the national average. Stress and poor salaries are cited as reasons why veterinarians are leaving the profession leading to a shortage of veterinarians in Australia. The suicide rate is similar in the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that Australian and British vets do not graduate with such crippling debt as their American colleagues, due to Australia and the UK providing subsidised higher education, low salaries and the high cost of providing modern small animal veterinary care contribute to financial stress.

Despite this global phenomena, there are moves by the profession and the veterinary community to tackle this crisis. Love your pet, Love your vet was founded to raise awareness of the high rate of burnout and suicide amongst veterinarians. The founder, a psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton recently released a book: “Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian” aimed at helping vets, students and vet nurses understand the issue and provide strategies to help them cope.

Not One More Vet is an online veterinary support group which has grown into an international community of veterinarians who use social media groups like facebook to provide real time communication and support for veterinarians struggling with their jobs and mental health.

The Australian Veterinary Association has many resources available to members and the general community, through its VetHealth initiative, including a veterinary mentoring program.

The British Veterinary Association supports several wellbeing initiatives such as VetLife, a free, confidential phone and email help line. They also provide support for new graduates through the Young Vet Network.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has a similar wellbeing and peer assistance program for North American vets.

The phenomena of veterinary profession related stress and suicide is not new, however recent social science research into the crisis is prompting action from associations and social groups. The profession is transforming towards a more feminised cohort who increasingly work in privatised, urban, small animal clinics with high economic stressors. This shift in socio-economic and cultural factors has changed the way in which veterinarians work, no longer a James Herriot type of villagepractice specialising in large animals.

Social media can help (online veterinary support networks) or hinder (cybervictimization) veterinary mental health. The recent explosion of social media usage has outstripped our understanding of the social and mental health effects it is having, and this includes within the veterinary profession. More research is needed in general, and in the veterinary profession specifically, on this complicated problem.

Animals, Disease and Human Society- The rise of veterinary medicine.

This excellent book clearly outlines the value Veterinary Anthropology can provide to our understanding of animals, disease and society. It also provides context for veterinarians to understand how their profession became such as it did.

Animals, Disease and Human Society: Human-animal Relations and the Rise of Veterinary Medicine

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In recent years, the issue of animal disease has seldom been out of the headlines. The emergence of BSE and the threat of food-borne infections such as E.coli and salmonella have focused public attention on the impact of animal disease on human society. However, the problem of animal disease is far from new. Animals, Disease and Human Society explores the history and nature of our dependency on other animals and the implications of this for human and animal health.

Writing from a historical and sociological perspective, Joanna Swabe’s work discusses such issues as:

* animal domestication
* the consequences of human exploitation of other animals, including links between human and animal disease
* the rise of a veterinary regime, designed to protect humans and animals alike
* implications of intensive farming practices, pet-keeping and recent biotechnological developments.

This account spans a period of some ten thousand years, and raises important questions about the increasing intensification of animal use for both animal and human health. All those interested in human-animal relationships or in public health issues will find Animals, Disease and Human Society a thought-provoking and rewarding work.

Joanna Swabe is a Postdoctoral Researcher affiliated to the Amsterdam School for Social Science Research, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Veterinary suicide- the social and workplace factors that increase the risk

A UK study found that veterinarians had a 4 times higher risk of suicide than the general population, and twice that of other health care professionals. Veterinary anthropological research into the social and work related influences and stressors leading to this increased risk are vital to developing suicide prevention strategies. buffalo face-1

“Possible factors include the characteristics of individuals entering the profession, negative effects during undergraduate training, work-related stressors, ready access to and knowledge of means, stigma associated with mental illness, professional and social isolation, and alcohol or drug misuse (mainly prescription drugs to which the profession has ready access). Contextual effects such as attitudes to death and euthanasia, formed through the profession’s routine involvement with euthanasia of companion animals and slaughter of farm animals, and suicide ‘contagion’ due to direct or indirect exposure to suicide of peers within this small profession are other possible influences.”

Download the paper here: Veterinary suicide in the UK


Ethnobotanical surveys

Ethnobotanical surveys are used to identify medicinal products used by local people. The capture of indigenous knowledge about the care and healing of animals in local communities has become an imperative. Urban migration and loss of transmission of the oral lineage of knowledge means these traditions are quickly disappearing.


Identifying medicinal plants used by herders in the north of Bhutan.
Identifying medicinal plants used by herders on their animals in the north of Bhutan.