Veterinary medicine is that part of medicine that deals with the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, and control of animal disease, as well as promoting the health and well-being of all animals. Veterinarians may be in private practice or may work in the public sector. In private practice the veterinarian is primarily concerned with the well-being of the individual animal, the client or the owner of the animal, and the population of animals at risk. Public veterinary medicine includes public health, wildlife and zoo medicine, diagnostic medicine, industrial medicine, regulatory medicine, teaching, and research.
Veterinary practice is probably as old as the domestication of animals. There are written records from 2000 © in ancient Egypt and Babylonia. Aristotle and others wrote extensively describing veterinary practices in the Greek city-states. (The term itself is derived from a Latin word meaning "beasts of burden.") In the pre-Christian era no sharp distinction was made between the practice of human and of animal medicine. With the development of Judeo-Christian philosophies, the uniqueness of humans was emphasized, and a sharp line was drawn between the physician and the veterinarian. But it was not until the 18th century that the veterinary profession developed in an ordered manner, after the founding of a college in Lyon, France.
Much of the present status and prestige of the veterinary profession has developed only in the relatively brief period since World War II. The decline in the use of animals for power because of the internal-combustion engine, and the phenomenal development of animal agriculture caused the significant changes in veterinary emphasis. Until recently, most graduates of veterinary medicine were male with farm animal interest, but now a majority of new veterinarians are female and have an urban background. This trend may reflect the gradual change of the profession from farm animal-directed care to companion-animal care.
Admission to an accredited veterinary college is very selective and is based on the successful completion of a preveterinary curriculum, generally about three years of college-level study. A good education in sciences is essential, as well as a working knowledge of math and good communication skills. The veterinary program itself has a four-year curriculum including basic sciences such as anatomy, physiology, chemistry, pathology, pharmacology, microbiology, and epidemiology, followed by the clinical sciences. Students are allowed to select courses that coincide with their practice desires. Besides receiving a degree of veterinary medicine from an accredited program, a practicing veterinarian must pass both national and state board examinations; some states accept successful completion of the national clinical competency examination without a further exam. Licenses are issued and monitored by each state in which a veterinarian practices.
A majority of the veterinarians today are employed in private practice, treating companion animals, primarily dogs and cats but also caring for rodents, birds, fish, and exotic animals such as reptiles.
Most of the efforts of small animal veterinarians are directed toward preventive medicine, such as vaccinations to prevent disease, treatments to control the spread of disease, neutering of animals to reduce population problems, and education of pet owners. Veterinarians who treat food animals are concerned with providing a healthy product for the consumer while assisting the owner in making the best possible decisions in order to be profitable. Preventive medicine is the main focus in food or production animal practices, but the concern is more with populations of animals rather than the individual. The veterinarian must know and apply disease prevention and control programs, nutritional programs, make timely recommendations for reproductive problems and replacement of animals, and help provide a humane and proper environment for the well-being of production animals. Veterinarians also care for horses, either kept for pleasure (riding) or competition (racing or showing). A private practice may specialize in one of the above areas or may include many different categories of animals seen.
In public practice the veterinarian provides services to the public through disease prevention and control programs for animal populations, inspection of foods of animal origin, prevention of human diseases of animal origin, environmental sanitation programs, control of stray and vicious animals, teaching and research programs, development of animal biological products, and regulatory programs such as animal importation. A majority of veterinarians in public practice are employed by federal, state, or local governments; private industries and institutions; or colleges or universities in a teaching or research capacity. Research is continuously adding information to veterinary medicine at a staggering rate. Many of the efforts of veterinary research have implications in human disease, and animals may serve as models for humans. As new diseases arise, research efforts are directed toward causes of disease or associations that lead to disease, diagnostic tests, and prevention and control measures to include vaccinations and treatments. Veterinary medicine is a very dynamic and diversified profession.