Why Do Few Vets Today Treat All Creatures Great and Small?

Rural vet examining horse

Q. I have a lot of animals — a dog, two cats, a parrot and two horses. My dogs and cats have one vet, my parrot another, and, of course, there’s another vet for the horse. What happened to the days of Dr. James Herriot, when veterinarians treated “all creatures great and small”?

A. Like many if not most of my veterinary colleagues, I love the stories of Dr. James Herriot, whose real name, by the way, was Alf Wight. You can bet when I had the chance, I beat feet for the place where he practiced in the small town of Thirsk, Yorkshire. Being able to visit such an important place for so many animal lovers will always be one of the highlights of the world travel my wife and I adore.

Though there are still veterinarians who have rural practices where they offer care for farm animals and pets, the level of knowledge and skill required today leads most of us to focus on either companion animal or large animal practice. Some of us are even more specialized, with veterinarians board certified to offer specialty care to birds, reptiles or, most recently, “exotics,” including ferrets, rabbits and so-called “pocket pets.” And that doesn’t take into consideration those veterinarians who specialize in internal medicine, such as cardiology or oncology, or in surgery.

As in so many areas, changes in veterinary care tracked closely the changes in human medicine. Though the doctors who cared for us used to be of the “town doc” generalist variety, children have long been cared for by pediatricians, while many other specialties, from allergists to urologists, offer detailed care for particular health problems.

It’s really just a matter of working to be the best at what you’re good at, I think.

I will say, however, that the shortage of large animal veterinarians is a problem that very much concerns us all, and there are efforts to bring more “James Herriots” into practice. You may think that if you don’t have a horse or cow if doesn’t matter that most veterinary students want to care for pets when they graduate. It does matter, however, because large-animal veterinarians are a critical part of disease prevention and keeping our food supply safe.

Though the days of James Herriot are, for the most part, behind us, the challenge of providing veterinary care to large animals will continue to grow more critical going forward. I don't know about you, but it makes me respect Mr. Wight even more than I already did, if that's at all possible.


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