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Small animal practice enters the 20th century

01 July 2017, at 1:00am

BRUCE VIVASH JONES continues his series on the history of the profession, this time looking at the transition into the 1900s and how, in particular, medicines began to inform the texts available

The late 19th century was dominated by the incredible advances in all technologies made during the industrial revolution. Medicine began to move ahead. General anaesthesia and aseptic technique revolutionised surgery. Hygiene practices and preventive medicine concepts evolved, the first vaccines appeared, nutrition was studied and research was beginning to show which therapeutics actually worked, and why.

This surge of medical knowledge was being absorbed by veterinarians, and in particular those in canine practice. Veterinary authors began to write: The Management and Diseases of the Dog (1878) by John Woodruffe Hill provided both a comprehensive text and a section on surgery including instruction on the use of general anaesthesia, with chloroform. In 1888, J. H. Steel published Diseases of the Dog, a similar text, but with a noticeable use of literature sources from France and Germany. The uptake and application of the new knowledge was significant. Both authors paid tribute to Blaine, Youatt and Mayhew as being the pioneers of canine studies.

A developing understanding of the use and action of therapeutics produced two important books. In 1837, W. J. H. Morton, a teacher at the London veterinary school, published A Manual of Pharmacy. This small, concise book was clear in its text, embraced all species and provided a valuable practitioner reference, in eight editions up to 1880. Finlay Dun, lecturer at the Edinburgh (Dick) veterinary school, published Veterinary Medicine in 1854. This was the first British attempt to present a rational and scientific approach to veterinary medicine – a well-structured text covering the actions and uses of pharmaceuticals, with an extensive appendix which included all the important canine diseases, but nothing on the cat.

At least 12 editions appeared into the 1900s. The formation of the National Veterinary Association in 1881 started to unify the profession, eventually becoming the British Veterinary Association. The Association gained importance when it acquired The Veterinary Record in 1920. Founded in 1888 by William Hunting, an exceptional clinician, it was devoted to clinical reports from the regional associations. It gave the readers the opportunity to learn from the experiences of their colleagues; the small animal reports, mainly related to dogs, provided an added impetus to practice growth.

By 1900 all the veterinary schools, including the new Dublin College, were teaching something of the diseases of the dog. The introduction of chinchona bark (quinine) for the treatment of malaria in humans had created the concept of a “specific” therapeutic. At the time, medication was essentially symptomatic and for a while chinchona was used (hopefully) in most common diseases of animals and humans.

Many substances in use were actually toxic – there was no real clinical evaluation, empiricism and one’s personal belief ruled the day. Money-making medicine people have always sought a “cure”; medicines are good money-makers and the patent medicine market reached its apogee. These manufacturers became a prime source of information and advice for animal owners.

Medications for dogs and cats developed a momentum of their own: one company – Elliman, Sons & Co. – which sold a widely-used embrocation for all species, produced a quite well written illustrated book on animal treatment; published in 1899, it was still being reprinted in the 1930s. The 18th edition, in 1904 of the Day, Son and Hewitt book Veterinary Practice at Home even included a plate “By Special Royal Appointment to His Majesty the King” and emblazoned with the Royal Arms.

The book had a canine section which was reasonably well written (for the times) but only covered diseases where the company sold a medicine. Ear mites as a cause of otitis (recognised by A. J. Lovatt in 1894), parasitic mange, lice, ticks and fleas were all discussed. The product listing also included valueless products such as distemper pills “for Preventing and Curing this troublesome and often fatal disease”, priced at 1/6d per box. The book was still in print in the 1930s.

Cats and dogs

Specific dog and cat books on treatment and care were produced
by the Bob Martin and Sherleys companies early in the century and have been updated to the present day, now with reliable information for the pet owner.

A book by James Moore, published in 1863, promoted the use of homoeopathic treatment of dog diseases, specifically distemper. For the next 150 years, a variety of so-called alternative therapies have been proposed for use by pet owners. While these have been almost universally challenged by the profession, it should be noted that in 1863 many medicines being sold were potentially toxic and dangerous. If the homoeopathic remedy did not cure, neither was it toxic.

Small animal practitioners had found their place in the 1920s, but an ever darkening cloud hung over their daily work – canine distemper.

The disease had been recognised by Delabere Blaine in 1800, when he published A Concise Description of Distemper in Dogs; it had probably existed in Britain for some time, but confused with rabies, then the major canine problem. In the early 1900s there was much interest in so-called vaccine and serotherapy and these technologies were quite widely used in veterinary medicine. The virus cause of distemper had been identified by Carré in France in 1905, but a variety of vaccines continued to be produced based on claimed immunogens. An organism termed Bacillus bronchisepticus was thought to be either the cause of, or involved in, the disease.

Vaccines were produced and misleading claims and promises were made. Ant-distemper sera were produced, but these were probably polyvalent antibacterial products, of little value. By the 1920s the urban situation was bad – distemper had reached epidemic proportions. Finally, The Field magazine started to raise funds to study the disease. The Medical Research Council provided facilities and in 1923 Patrick Laidlaw, a medical virologist, with George Dunkin – a research-oriented veterinarian – started work.

They first confirmed the observations of Carré and then, using the ferret, developed an immunisation system. Effective vaccines were introduced which eventually aided the virtual eradication of the disease, enabling the growth of small animal practice in cities and towns.