To be a vet, you need to learn good ba­sic sci­ence


A few weeks ago, I wrote about the role of a vet, and how an­i­mal health was the main fo­cus of the job. I went on to de­scribe some of the as­pects of an­i­mal health and dis­ease that vet stu­dents need to learn about. A reader con­tacted me to ask more about cer­tain as­pects of the ar­ti­cle; in par­tic­u­lar, they wanted to know more about some of the early sub­jects that I men­tioned that vet stu­dents need to learn about.

Anatomy is the first one, and it is one of the most fun­da­men­tal ar­eas that vets need to master. The dic­tionary def­i­ni­tion says it all: “the branch of sci­ence con­cerned with the bod­ily struc­ture of hu­mans, an­i­mals, and other liv­ing or­gan­isms, es­pe­cially as re­vealed by dis­sec­tion and the sep­a­ra­tion of parts”. I still re­mem­ber my first day at vet school: I was ush­ered into a large hall con­tain­ing around thirty ta­bles. A dead dog lay stretched out on each ta­ble. The dogs were stray dogs that had been eu­thanased some days pre­vi­ously in the lo­cal dog pound, then passed on to the vet school. This was all very shock­ing for a class­ful of im­pres­sion­able eigh­teen year olds who saw them­selves as an­i­mal lovers.

A strong smell of preser­va­tive filled the air: the dogs’ ca­dav­ers had been pre­served in for­ma­lin. Our brief was sim­ple: each pair of stu­dents had to dis­sect a dog from the tips of its toes to the tip of its tail, and we had to ex­am­ine and mem­o­rise ev­ery as­pect of the body as we did this. So we had to look at mus­cles, nerves, ten­dons and lig­a­ments on the limbs, and in the ab­domen and chest, we had to in­spect ev­ery in­ter­nal or­gan.

That first day was dif­fi­cult and un­for­get­table. It did get eas­ier, and there’s no doubt that phys­i­cally ex­am­in­ing the ac­tual parts of the body made it eas­ier to re­mem­ber them.

And the knowl­edge gained – the in­tri­cate de­tail of ev­ery mus­cle in the dog – is still use­ful to me to­day, nearly forty years later.

We also had to look at ev­ery­thing un­der the mi­cro­scope, learn­ing about the ap­pear­ance of dif­fer­ent cells when mag­ni­fied a hun­dred times.

When we moved into sec­ond year at vet school, the next task was “com­par­a­tive anatomy”, which in­volved car­ry­ing out dis­sec­tions of cats, cat­tle, sheep, horses, pigs, rab­bits and poul­try. The ba­sic anatomy of all species of mam­mals is broadly the same, but there are dif­fer­ences that vets need to know about (e.g. cat­tle and sheep have four stom­achs, com­pared to just one in dogs, cats and pigs).

Phys­i­ol­ogy was anatomy’s sis­ter sub­ject: it’s all about how the nor­mal body works. It ex­plains how the var­i­ous parts of the anatomy carry out their var­i­ous func­tions. To a young sci­en­tific mind, this is a fas­ci­nat­ing topic. As part of our learn­ing about phys­i­ol­ogy, we had to carry out some ex­per­i­ments to demon­strate to us how liv­ing tis­sue re­sponds to dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions. All of the stu­dents found this dif­fi­cult. We had to carry out pro­ce­dures on frogs that were freshly killed, so that their mus­cles and nerves were still work­ing. There was an­other sit­u­a­tion which was so upsetting that it led to a walk-out of stu­dents: a lab­o­ra­tory dog was anaes­thetised and then bled to death in a con­trolled way while we were meant to mon­i­tor as­pects like blood pres­sure, body tem­per­a­ture, and breath­ing/ heart rate. This was the fi­nal straw for young, ide­al­is­tic an­i­mal lovers: we could not un­der­stand why the dog had to be sac­ri­ficed like this. Why could we not just be told what would hap­pen in such a sit­u­a­tion? Af­ter our walk out, the teach­ing team re­viewed the is­sue, and it never hap­pened again. The fact that it hap­pened at all was a sign of the times we were liv­ing in. Vivi­sec­tion – ex­per­i­ments on liv­ing an­i­mals – was com­mon place. It was only when young peo­ple in the eight­ies re­belled against this that so­ci­ety’s at­ti­tudes be­gan to change.

Bio­chem­istry was the third main topic for new vet stu­dents: the branch of sci­ence con­cerned with the chem­i­cal pro­cesses and sub­stances that oc­cur in­side liv­ing crea­tures. This was a much more the­o­ret­i­cal sub­ject than anatomy or phys­i­ol­ogy, with di­a­grams of mol­e­cules and chem­i­cal re­ac­tions, but it was also fas­ci­nat­ing: learn­ing about the build­ing blocks of life. There were no messy, emo­tional ex­per­i­ments: this was pure the­ory.

As we ad­vanced through the course, we learned about pathol­ogy, which is like “anatomy and phys­i­ol­ogy gone wrong”: the sci­ence of the causes and ef­fects of dis­eases. We were back in the dis­sect­ing room, pick­ing apart the bod­ies of an­i­mals that had died of var­i­ous ill­nesses, then in the lab­o­ra­tory, peer­ing at ab­nor­mal cells down a mi­cro­scope. This stuff was not for the faint-hearted: any sense of be­ing a soft an­i­mal lov­ing child was well and truly gone by now.

Mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy, bac­te­ri­ol­ogy and vi­rol­ogy were taught at the same time: we learned about the causes of the pathol­ogy that we were wit­ness­ing. The best way to beat your en­e­mies is to know them well, and so as vets, if we wanted to cure ill­ness, we had to learn all about the bugs that were caus­ing it. We also stud­ied on­col­ogy – the sci­ence of cancer, a topic that has ad­vanced hugely in the forty years since I was at vet school.

For young peo­ple, fas­ci­nated by the work­ings of the body, these sci­en­tific stud­ies were en­thralling, and there’s no doubt that they pro­vided a sound foun­da­tion for the ca­reer of be­ing a vet­eri­nary sur­geon.

Mi­cro­scopes play a ma­jor role in vet ed­u­ca­tion.

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