Most people think that veterinarians are doctors who treat cats and dogs, provide compassionate, expert care but also charge amply for their services. This narrow view means that a vet's work is underestimated and, often, not respected. In reality their role is substantially broader and yet their leadership potential is generally overlooked.
While many vets are caregivers for our domestic animals -- and it's very important work -- a larger mission is to focus on minimizing the transmission of infectious disease and help tackle world hunger issues.
Vets are trained as rigorously as doctors of human medicine; four years of college, four of vet school and additional internships and residencies if they become specialists. Uniquely trained in comparative biology, veterinarians are the only members of the clinical profession -- including physicians -- who see many different species, and understand medicine fundamentally such that all species benefit.
Veterinarians approach medicine with a global perspective and support public health, enormously impacting people's well-being. They also play an integral role in food safety and food production. Since people share many of the same diseases and biology as animals, veterinarians have a large role in preventing and controlling diseases, as well as providing research that helps treat diseases like cancer, neurological disorders and immune diseases.
In fact, veterinary medicine is the profession that stands between all of humanity and plague and famine.
For instance, many of the infectious diseases (e.g. avian flu, swine flu, AIDS, West Nile Virus, Lyme disease) that spread in humans come from animals originally. The CDC estimates that number to be 75 percent. Preventing new diseases in humans, as well as potential plagues, is crucial, and well-trained animal care professionals play a vital role. In Pennsylvania, veterinarians developed surveillance technology that provides the ability to stem an outbreak of avian influenza. Within one month, a potentially devastating outbreak was stopped at a cost of $400,000, while a similar outbreak in Virginia at the same time cost the state over $100 million. Undoubtedly, it is safer, cheaper, healthier and more effective to identify a disease before it appears in people.
Beyond infectious diseases, many veterinarians transcend the animal world by applying the knowledge they have gained through their research to develop better treatments for animals and people. For example, Dr. Ralph Brinster became in 2011 the only veterinarian ever to win the National Medal of Science. He developed a reliable in-vitro culture system for early mouse embryos. Now the system is used in embryo manipulations such as human in-vitro fertilization, mammalian cloning, and embryonic stem cell therapy. And vets are leading the way in critical advances in gene therapies -- including cures for two forms of blindness in animals and humans, one of which is now in human trials. The American Academy of Neurology cites more than 12 neurological diseases or disorders that animal research has helped cure, treat, prevent, or further understand. Clearly, human and animal health are more connected than most people realize, and doctors can learn much from the breakthrough work of veterinarians.
Not only are we concerned about diseases of epidemic proportions but as our world population grows, we also are increasingly faced with issues related to famine. Hunger is the world's number one public health threat -- killing more people than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined, according to James T. Morris, Executive Director of the U.N. World Food Program. Food availability, safety and production are key areas of research and service for veterinarians. Our food sources need to be safe, healthy and plentiful. Veterinarians, for instance, have developed a food safety system whereby poultry eggs can be tested for Salmonella 10 times more swiftly, saving millions of dollars and ensuring public safety. And by gathering information from dairy farms, vets can examine this data and advise farmers on how to modify their feed formulations and additives and change milking schedules. Not only does this tremendously increase animal well-being, it also positively impacts the economics. Eating "local food" is a direct result.
And beyond eating local, this knowledge has global implications and can be shared with developing countries who demand a higher quality of food and more animal protein, such as meat, milk, and eggs. While the number of dairy cows in the U.S. has decreased, milk production has grown. This isn't the case in developing countries -- the number of cows continues to grow while milk production doesn't. Our knowledge related to increasing yield per animal for dairy cows can help feed developing countries.
The Importance of Human-Animal Interaction
It has been well-documented that the human-animal connection provides a powerful healing bond. Service and therapy dogs really do enhance our quality of life. A common situation that develops among the elderly is the repercussion of a pet's illness. Often times, this event leads to the pet needing to leave the home. An additional outcome may be that the person ends up in a nursing home with little animal contact, which has been shown to improve their quality of life as well as, at times, their health. The human-animal connection extends into other areas as well.
We have a moral obligation to study our companion animals on this planet; it's a practical issue that the animals that serve us, feed us, and take care of us be healthy. In doing so, we must redefine the veterinarian's role.
Vets will always be needed to treat cats and dogs. But it is their ability to link animal science to human well-being, advance food production and safety, and provide critical defense from global pandemics that needs to be better understood.
It is far and away today's and tomorrow's veterinarians who are best suited to tackle important issues such as these.