The new vets
I was at the Philippine Veterinary Medical Association (PVMA) yesterday to deliver opening remarks for its convention, and also to catch up with the profession. I found myself asking colleagues about their veterinary license. Mine is in the line of 1, but I was running into people first in the line of 2, then, as younger ones came in, in the lines of 7 and 8. I was told we now have some in the line of 9.
But then I got my license in 1977, which is in ancient times, and veterinary medicine has evolved, like other professions. Vets are no longer dog and cat doctors.
Dog and cat doctors are now companion-animal practitioners, with specializations closely paralleling those in human medicine. Those working with large animals are also becoming more specialized, with some dealing only with poultry, others with swine. They face new challenges, too, like preventing antibiotic resistance in the farms.
We also have many government veterinarians working at the frontlines to protect human and animal health. Government vets are currently concerned with the spread of Newcastle disease, which affects poultry. Considering how important chickens are in the local diet, there will be many adverse consequences if Newcastle disease continues to spread.
Local governments now have city veterinarians who work with new problems coming from an increasing urban animal population. This includes rabies vaccination and promoting responsible pet ownership. The hazards they face are many, from dog bites to irate dog owners (sort of, considering that some “owners” can’t even control their “pets”) resisting roundups of stray animals.
Also at the frontlines are animal quarantine veterinarians, who valiantly prevent the entry into our borders of zoonoses, or diseases that can be passed from animals to humans. An example is avian flu.
We vets remain a relatively small profession—tiny compared to much larger numbers for engineering, medicine or nursing. Yet, I see the many specialty and subspecialty organizations.
Dr. Ed Unson, who heads the Philippine Animal Hospital Association, described to me the members’ efforts to set standards for their clinics, which can sometimes involve the vets going back to relearn basic skills. Just as an example, when he (and I) were in vet school, we were taught how to restrain animals in an almost rough and forceful way. This has been found to actually traumatize the animals and, like human children, make them fearful of their doctor.
The changes come out of new findings about animal behavior. Some years back, I wrote about a group doing clicker training. Instead of shouting out commands and pulling on a choke lease to train a dog, clickers use a little gadget that teaches dogs (and many other animals, including large ones like dolphins) to associate commands with the clicker sound and a reward.
Unfortunately, I had to return to Davao and missed a presentation on the effect of housing conditions on swine production. Poor living conditions among animals have similar effects as those in humans: The animals are stressed, don’t grow too well, and, after slaughter, may have poor meat quality.
At the PVMA convention, we had a professor from Utrecht University’s vet school, but she was actually a child and health psychologist and helps veterinary students to better understand the bonds between humans and animals.
I’m hoping we can have programs here to link culture to animal and human health. Can you imagine, for example, what would happen if avian flu breaks out in the country? We would have to do massive culling of poultry, and that will include fighting cocks. I shudder to think of what will happen, short of a revolution.
Some of the new types of clinical work are not too radical —for example, using acupuncture for dogs and cats. But there are other vets who have “migrated” to more distant fields. I’ve met vets doing environmental conservation, genetics, and more. At the University of the Philippines Diliman, a veterinarian, Dr. Lemnuel Aragones, is the director of the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology, which is blazing new trails in various fields, from disaster risk mitigation to a little known (but important) Stranded Mammals rescue program, involving mainly cetaceans like dolphins.
I do find myself going back to my vet training without realizing it. Many of us were told when we were in vet school that being a vet is more difficult than being a physician because human patients, even if they are children, can talk. In veterinary medicine (as well as in anthropology), we are taught to listen and observe more. Good vets, in fact, develop a good eye and a good ear, even a good nose, to catch signs of ill health.
Veterinarians have to deal with so many age-old problems, from food insecurity and malnutrition to Newcastle disease, rabies and other zoonoses, even as new ones emerge. Given that situation, we will find that while veterinary medicine is becoming more specialized, it will become even more important that we work across those specializations, and reach out to other disciplines.
I was surprised when Dr. Unson told me about how India made the mistake of killing stray dogs and cats, which resulted in a surge of the rat population, as well as rat-borne diseases. I was reminded of exactly the same mistake several centuries ago in Europe, during the Black Death or bubonic plague. People thought stray animals were causing the disease, so had them exterminated. But rats were the real cause of the plague, and without any predators, their numbers increased and the Black Death surged without mercy.
Our future veterinarians may well need to have more interdisciplinary materials in their training—for example, going back in history to look at how human-animal relationships promoted better health… or disease. Our future vets will also need exposure to such fields as population ecology, animal behavior, and much more.
Even as I approach retirement, I’m seriously thinking of doing more of veterinary medicine, not because I’m leaving anthropology, but because the two fields have many similarities, and actually complement each other.
The PVMA is more than 100 years old, but I told the audience that we still had “asim” (tartness, a compliment when said in Filipino). Veterinarians do it better, in more ways than one.
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