I bet you think of your veterinarian as the person who makes your pet healthier, right? And that’s true, but I also bet you don’t know how much veterinarians — yours and others — are involved with human health. Because I’m proud of my colleagues, I want to share a little about some of the work they do that most people don’t know about — but that we all count on for our own health, every day.

The veterinary profession is part of an effort known as the One Health Initiative, which brings together all medical professionals in a worldwide collaboration to improve human health. Because many human diseases start in animals, veterinarians are an essential part of detecting disease outbreaks that could devastate human populations.

When We Say "Family," We Mean It

Even before you think about the scary prospect of any sort of global pandemic, think about the health of your family. While it’s far more likely for anyone to catch a disease from another person, there are health risks associated with close contact with animals, pets included. These risks are categorized as “zoonotic,” and for the most part, they’re easily managed. As I always say, “Lose the risk, keep the pet.” Your own veterinarian is part of your management team, in a couple of critical ways:

Parasite control. Fleas, ticks and worms aren’t just a problem for your pets. When your pets are infested with parasites, the people they’re around are at risk of contracting diseases carried and transmitted by parasites. That’s why having your veterinarian provide you with a specific plan to control parasites is so important. Of course, you have to do your part, too, with such simple strategies as picking up the yard and scooping the litter box frequently, and washing and vacuuming pet areas. These actions interrupt the reproductive cycle of parasites and keep your entire family safer and more comfortable.

Food recommendations. Ever since the pet food recall of 2007, pet lovers have had legitimate concerns about the food they provide to their pets. With the recent problems with salmonella in many brands of food, those concerns have come to the surface again. While most pet food companies do their best to provide a good, safe product and most pet food is safe, it’s important to stay on top of problems by working with your veterinarian. Ask for input on brands and safety, and again, do your part: Get in the habit of handling pet food safely, especially by washing your hands after feeding pets and washing dishes in warm, soapy water when pets are done eating.

Looking at the Big Picture

Safety of food system. Most veterinarians are in what could be called “family practice.” There are a relatively small number of veterinarians who never see a pet in an exam room, but still play an important role in the health of pets and people. As part of the food production and distribution network, food hygiene veterinarians are knowledgeable not only in animal care but also in sanitation, epidemiology, microbiology and more. They work in government and industry primarily, and their role has grown as the complexity of the global food system has expanded.

Public health protectors. While rabies control was once the primary concern of each state’s public health veterinarians, the role of these medical professionals has grown in recent years. In 2007, for example, many states’ public health veterinarians took the initiative to work with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in figuring out the mystery of tainted pet foods. They work within the larger public health system to protect the public from emerging diseases arising from animals, whether that be pets, livestock or wildlife.

On the Cutting Edge of Care

Veterinary researchers. While many people may be uncomfortable with the use of animals in research, it’s a fact that many advances that make survival possible for people and pets alike wouldn’t exist without it. Veterinarians are not only directly involved in critical research, but they’re also in charge of the care of animals in research colonies. The work done in these studies may one day save your pet’s life — or your own.

I’ve spoken to veterinarians all over the world, and have known the top experts in every area where veterinary medicine is essential to the fabric of human health worldwide. We are all healthier for the efforts of my colleagues.