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The Veterinarian's Role in Public Health

Updated on September 3, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.

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Most pet owners think of their veterinarian as simply their pets’ doctor. Few are aware of the significant role vets play in public health matters, and are surprised to learn that veterinary professionals are an important link in the chain of officials who monitor public health.

And now, veterinarians with pet animal practices are being encouraged to take an even more proactive role. A number of health agencies are looking to keep them in the loop, so to speak.

The concern is zoonoses (pronounced zoo-no’-seez), the spread of disease from animals to humans, and it concerns organizations such as the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH), the World Health Organization (WHO) and others.

For the most part, the worldwide focus has been on the transfer of diseases from livestock to humans. In recent memory, for example, we’ve had to deal with such threats as mad cow disease, swine flu, avian flu, and West Nile virus.

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A Stepped-up Focus On Pets

While livestock remains a key target in monitoring zoonoses, officials are taking a closer look at companion animals, and hoping to advance the monitoring and reporting of zoonoses on that front.

Pet owning families are subject to a number of diseases that can pass from our pets to us and others in the household. Fleas and rabies are probably the knee-jerk response when pet owners consider diseases we can catch from our pets, but there are so many others.

Cat owners may think of cat scratch fever or toxoplasmosis, although the latter is probably more widely spread through the careless handling of raw meat. In addition to bacteria and viruses, our pets can infect us with all sorts of nasty varmints.

There are the creepy crawly parasites such as fleas, ticks and ear mites; and also the parasites we don’t see, such as tapeworms, hookworms and roundworms. And then there’s ringworm. It’s not actually a worm, but a highly contagious fungus we can catch from our pets. It gets its name from its appearance: a round, scaly red patch with a raised border.

Most zoonotic diseases are preventable simply by observing principals of good hygiene. Chief among those are hand washing and the proper cleaning and maintenance of tools and accessories used in animal husbandry.

The Concept of Comparative Medicine

Comparative medicine studies how diseases move from species to species, including humans, and relies on the efforts of veterinarians, physicians and public health officials. The hope is that there will be increased collaboration among these professionals in three main areas: individual health, population health, and research.

Individual Health doesn’t only concern itself with people who own or work with animals. People who receive organ transplants from donors who own or work with animals are also at risk, for example.

And the risk isn’t only from cats and dogs, or to people with compromised immune systems. Pet birds, rodents, amphibians and reptiles can also pass a variety of diseases on to humans; the healthy as well as the immunocompromised.

But there's a little roadblock in this area. Physicians and veterinarians are the key players, yet many physicians hesitate when it comes to discussing the role animals play in the spread of zoonoses, and few sick people think of veterinarians as having a role in human health, so don't think to consult one.

According to the CDC, “veterinarians who treat animals that suddenly become ill with confirmed infections should assess the risk for zoonotic potential and inform the animals' owners accordingly.

From a medical-legal standpoint, veterinarians are obligated to do this, but the extent to which they should inform animal owners and ensure that they seek medical attention varies depending on the circumstances.”

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The veterinarian can play an important role in human health by collaborating with physicians. For example, a physician may have a patient whose immune system is compromised, but who insists on keeping their pet.

But roles must be clearly defined first, lest the vet be put in a position of appearing to be practicing medicine. The vet could monitor the animal’s health by providing regular check-ups and keeping the physician updated.

Population health can be a real bucket of worms. For instance, some states may place the responsibility for tracking, say rabies, with local boards of health, while tracking livestock health falls under the state’s agricultural authority and wildlife concerns fall under the state’s environmental authority.

Relatively few states require veterinarians to report zoonoses to their local public health authorities. A CDC inquiry found that only 8 of 43 responding states had such a requirement, and two of those only required the reporting of rabies.

One problem is that most state departments of agriculture and environment suffer from a lack of funding, and therefore do not have the financial or human resources to proactively engage in prevention and control. Also, many such agencies have historically been in business primarily to promote agriculture or conservation.

Public health officials are hoping to see not only collaboration between animal and human medicine, but also between state and local agencies so that the efforts of medicine, veterinary medicine and public health will overlap.

Research by collaborating human and animal medicine practitioners seems to be nearly hamstrung. The number of physician-scientists applying for NIH support has been pretty much stagnant since the 1970’s while the number of veterinarian-scientists is presently considered dire.

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According to the CDC the reasons are similar for both medical and veterinary students: an emphasis on clinical care, student-loan debt, and a lack of mentors and research opportunities.

Medical schools now emphasize primary care and care for the underserved, while vet schools, because society has said to, have shifted their focus from comparative medicine research and livestock medicine to companion animal medicine.

We’d all benefit greatly if physicians and veterinarians collaborated on comparative medicine research projects that focused on the relationship between diseases and their hosts, while worldwide, public health organizations are hoping that veterinarians, physicians, and public health officials will work more closely together to understand, control, and prevent zoonotic diseases.

One step the CDC suggests is for medical, veterinary and public health schools to offer courses on zoonotic risks that integrate individual health, population health and research perspective.

Professional journals serving human and veterinary medicine are likely reporting on the subject, so your veterinarian might be familiar with the stirrings that are occurring all over the globe. It might be interesting to learn if their practice or professional association is doing something about reporting zoonoses and being kept in the loop.

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    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 3 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      My condolences on the loss of your cat, FlourishAnyway. It's something that most pet owners face at some point, and it's never easy. It's right, but not easy. We euthanized our 16 year old cat (colon cancer) two years ago and to this day, I expect to see her at the head of the stairs when I go up.

      You're fortunate to have a vet you're so comfortable with. I hear more and more owners complaining about their vets. One issue has been more prominent of late. In this economy, it seems that owners are scheduling fewer visits and the vets are probably feeling it. As they bring products into their clinic for retail sale, and offer additional services, many owners are feeling pressured by staffs into buying stuff. I interact with a lot of pet owners in MA and RI and have been hearing this for the past couple of years. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      My vet is a real pro and very up-to-date on scientific knowledge. He provides an excellent educational role, even though I consider myself educated on animal issues. I trust him immensely and consider him a true expert and partner. I travel about 45 minutes to reach him, even though there are other vets within 5 minutes of my house. He is that good. Today he euthanized my 18 1/2 year old dementia cat as our family said goodbye to her. We couldn't have asked for a better experience for such a sad situation. I agree with you; vets are unsung heroes.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Mary, thanks for stopping by. It's nice to see you. I don't have to remind you that veterinarians are truly unsung heroes. But, I blame their professional associations. I think they need to have an active outreach function so that the general public is aware that they are more than pet doctors.

      In talking with pet owners over the years, most do have a real soft spot in their hearts for veterinarians and vet techs, but there's a vast population that doesn't own animals and that doesn't give the profession a second thought.

      I think that if professional associations gained more visibility for their profession, folks would know that vets do more than just spay and neuter dogs and cats. That could do wonders for the growth of the profession. Thanks for stopping by and for the votes.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 4 years ago from Florida

      My deceased husband was a Veterinarian, and I am always interested in reading articles about them. This was a very interesting and informative article, and it covers subjects I had never given much thought to.

      Voted UP.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Thanks, Lucy, nice to see you. The good news is, dogs can't get the flu from us. The bad news is, they have their own form of the flu. But the good news is, there's a vaccine for it. Good to have you stop by, thanks for the votes. Regards, Bob

    • LucyLiu12 profile image

      LucyLiu12 4 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      Another great article, Bob - voted up and interesting. I'm also interested if it's possible for people to transfer diseases to their pets - like the current influenza epidemic.