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.

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