Ethnoveterinary medicine is the study of different cultural approaches to animal health, disease, and illness, and of the nature of local animal healing systems.
Ethnoveterinary medicine is similar to its related discipline: ethnomedicine. EVM however, focuses on animals rather than humans. This division, however, may be artificial; the same healing practices and ethnopharmaceutical medicines are used to treat all members of the community– both human or non-human animals.
Traditional human health care practices or ethnomedicine, village, folk or bazaar medicine has evolved over the millennia alongside the development of human society. Similarly, animal health care practices, or EVM, have developed along with the human domestication of animals. People have associated with animals since ancient times, domesticating the dog first in around 14,000 BCE, the horse around 3000 BCE, sheep and goats in the Nile valley by 9000 BCE and cattle in Egypt from 4000 BCE. Evidence shows horses, elephants, cattle and other animals were highly prized in India and Sri Lanka from 3000 BCE and were treated with Āyurvedic medicine.
The first textual evidence of veterinary medicine came from Egyptian priest healers who recorded religious and medical veterinary therapies in the Papyrus of Kahun (1900 BCE). The Rigveda (1500–1000 BCE), the Mahabharata (1000 BCE) and other ancient Indian texts document veterinary care from those eras. One of the oldest dedicated veterinary textbooks, the Asvashastra, was written by Shalihotra in 1800 BCE and dedicated to the care and treatment of horses. Shalihotra is considered the father of veterinary medicine in India. Palakapya’s work, Hastayurveda is considered the oldest work on elephant care and treatment and was authored in 1000 BCE. Traditional veterinary practices are extant in most areas of India, and a burgeoning market of Āyurvedic veterinary products are available.
Similarly, in the Chinese literature, a plethora of ancient veterinary texts exist, the first of which is the Bo Le Zhen Jing or Bo Le’s Canon of Veterinary Acupuncture (660 BCE), again focused on horses. Traditional veterinary texts were found in England from 1500 C.E., although the oral traditions of animal health care existed before that.
The institutionalisation of veterinary medicine has a long history. King Ashoka, the great Buddhist king of India, created a national network of veterinary hospitals between 269 and 212 BCE. The first veterinary teaching college operated in China in 500 CE. Much later, the first western veterinary schools began in France in 1762, London in 1792 and Edinburgh in 1823.
In the UK and Europe during the 1800s, some animals like dogs were gradually regarded as companion animals, and the focus on horses, at least for the elite, shifted from cartage and transport to sports like fox hunting and racing. The demands on the veterinary traditions slowly shifted to include small animal medicine as reflected in the veterinary school curriculum in these countries.
The early western veterinary schools emphasised a systemised codification of information based on scientific principles, but the materia medica, that is, the veterinary medications including herbs and other substances, was unchanged from that used for centuries. From the 1930s, however, veterinary medicine’s transformation into bio-veterinary medicine occurred. During the post-war pharmaceutical revolution manufacturers sold pre-packaged pharmaceuticals to veterinarians and the emergence of many antibiotics, anthelmintics and vaccines changed the practice of veterinary medicine profoundly. During this time, as was seen in the medical field, bio-veterinary medicine became the dominant practice in the western world, and ethnoveterinary medicine was then perceived as inferior and backward.
As early as the 1920s, some state employed, biomedically trained Indian veterinarians recognised the need to document ‘folk’ or ‘bazaar’ veterinary practices, drugs and also the need to study their own ancient veterinary texts. They hoped to integrate this knowledge into the western systems of treatment with the perceived benefits arising from economic feasibility, easy availability, cultural acceptance, and self-sufficiency. From 1931, the Indian veterinary journal reported proposals to research the efficacy of ‘bazaar’ drugs with authors and editors urging the Imperial Council of Agricultural Research and the Imperial Bacteriological Research Institute, for example, to take up the research. Their requests fell on the deaf ears of their British ‘Imperial Masters’. These early EVM pioneers continually promoted the need for this work throughout the decades and the Indian veterinarians themselves endeavored to research and document Indian village medicine, thus producing some of the earliest literature on traditional veterinary practices.
Over the last few decades, recognition of the limitations of bio-veterinary medicine including restricted access to remote rural communities, cutbacks in the provision of government veterinary services and an ideological change in the way indigenous knowledge is valued, has led to a revival of interest in capturing ethnoveterinary knowledge of animal care and healing practices. This shift is mainly driven by the livestock development sector and has resulted in the publication of thousands of peer-reviewed articles and books on the subject. A recent annotated bibliography collated sources from 118 countries and 160 different ethnic groups documenting over 200 health problems of 25 different animal species. Development agencies aim to empower local communities to maintain their animal health via locally available, affordable and culturally acceptable traditional treatments.
There is now a thriving global industry in EVM and ethnopharmaceutical products in both developed and developing communities. These are produced for companion animal, equine and livestock medicine. The practice of Chinese traditional veterinary medicine continues to this day and is now a global phenomenon. The International Veterinary Acupuncture Society runs courses and has members globally. The principle animals treated by its members are dogs and horses.