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.