In May 1932, T. Swann Harding published The Metamorphosis of the Horse Doctor. In it he vividly described the life of a veterinary surgeon in rural Virginia before the 1870s. Carrying a bag of rudimentary instruments that included a knife, a needle and a ball of twine, these animal practitioners charged round their parish in a sprung gig carriage, administering to horse, pig or cow as necessary.

This was a world where veterinary medicine was in its infancy. The first veterinary school, in Philadelphia, only opened its doors in 1852. These early colleges were run on economic grounds where much of the training left the graduates ill-equipped to deal with the challenging world that faced them. Barely two hundred out of around fifteen hundred graduates in the 1860s were members of their professional body, the American Veterinary Association.

It is little wonder that many farmers, battling with diseases that threatened to wipe out their herds, referred to these early professionals rather unkindly as ‘horse doctors’. The farmers themselves were highly practical men who often chose to do the work themselves, using healing practices handed down over generations. Alternatively they used the services of one of the many ‘hoss-doctors’ or ‘cow-leeches’, untrained individuals who still offered cheap, traditional methods such as bleeding and blistering.

Lyon was the home of the first veterinary school
Lyon was the home of the world’s very first veterinary school

The unflattering nicknames reflect the fact that until the arrival of the motor car in the early twentieth century, the horse was the principal mode of transport in many parts of the world. Ever since the first veterinary school opened in the French town of Lyon in 1762, the focus was firmly on equine studies. On the cattle ranches of the American West the horse was the only means of covering vast distances, across often difficult terrain, to manage disparate herds of livestock.

Horses had a special status being of more value to the cowboys and the ranchers.
Horses had a special status being of more value to the cowboys and the ranchers.

Before the American Civil War it was common for livestock, fenced off from valuable crops, to remain outdoors all winter. The animals were forced to forage for food with little more than the occasional hay bale for shelter, and many did not survive. The horse, being a valuable commodity, was more fortunate. The ranchers’ priorities were nothing new. Human beings, ever since the Stoic philosophers of Ancient Rome and Greece, have regarded animals as an asset to be bought and sold with a monetary value that determined their welfare. Livestock owners made decisions based on simple economics. They weighed up the cost of calling a vet and the benefits of saving an animal. Often it was cheaper to put a beast down rather than cure it.

This same attitude was prevalent in the American Army right up until the Civil War. Before the nation tore itself apart in this terrible conflict, an army quartermaster spent barely two hundred dollars annually on veterinary services. The conflict changed all that, becoming the catalyst for a serious review of animal welfare right across the American nation. Massed numbers of soldiers required mounts to ride, and meat on which to feed. Horses, cattle and other livestock, which until that time had remained scattered across a mainly rural landscape, congregated with humans in close proximity. This was the perfect breeding ground for diseases which could then easily spread.

For the first time vets, and the farriers assigned to each regiment by George Washington in 1776, battled with diseases and epidemics on a scale that their European counterparts, with over a millennia of experience, understood only too well. Thousands of animals died, not as sustenance for the troops, or from injuries incurred on the battlefield, but from diseases such as Glanders caused by the bacterium Burkholderia Mallei. By the end of the war the Union side alone was spending ninety thousand dollars on civilian vets. Animals were being assessed in veterinary hospitals that specialised in their ailment by practitioners with the knowledge to treat them.

The subsequent growth in veterinary research, at establishments such as the Lynchberg Infirmary in Virginia, was timely. The end of the Civil War, which saw an influx of new immigrants westward encouraged by Lincoln’s Homesteading Act, coincided with the emergence of the industrial revolution in America. Human and animal populations exploded in town and country alike and disease was never far behind. Soon significant numbers of animals, shipped from the ranches in the West on the new railroads, were penned up in cities, awaiting slaughter at the new meat-packing centres. When the Hatch Act of 1887 gave rise to the establishment of new research facilities, vets were already grappling with the effects of zoonoses, the crossover diseases transmitted from animals to humans.

Their work, which included scientific experiments on animals, was closely monitored by an emerging animal rights movement, energised by the horrors depicted in photographs from the civil war. By the time the First World War drew to a close in 1918, veterinary medicine and animal welfare had come a long way. Science ensured a proper understanding of the diseases, a thorough training meant vets were equipped to administer to the animals in their care, and a socially aware public no longer tolerated animal abuse.

2 thoughts on “Vets and animal welfare in the West

  1. My grandfather, Lee Allen, trained and medically tended to horses in World War I. Over 8 million horses were lost, killed and destroyed during this conflict. He would go on to revere the horse his entire life.

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    1. Yes, we tend only to concentrate on the human losses and completely forget the animal casualties (I had no idea that the number was so high). They didn’t volunteer, they weren’t part of the political battle that was raging across Europe and, when they got injured or maimed, they were merely seen as an impromptu meal. Your grandfather must have seen some terrible things.

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