When my two-year-old cat, Lily, began vomiting and refused her food and water, I took her to my veterinarian who, after a battery of X-rays and other tests, found nothing conclusive. The vet offered a preliminary diagnosis of gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining, and sent us home with medication to treat the condition. When twenty-four hours of the treatment yielded no improvement, we returned to the vet, who admitted Lily for observation overnight. The next evening, the vet phoned to say: “Lily is still vomiting and refusing food and water, so we ran a second set of X-rays and a comparison of the two sets revealed that her intestines are bunching as if something’s lodged inside. There’s an emergency veterinary clinic twenty miles away that has an ultrasound machine, which will enable us to see what’s inside. Please come pick up Lily and drive her there; we’ll notify them that you’re on your way.”
The ultrasound revealed a large quantity of thread tangled in Lily’s digestive tract. Unbeknownst to me, she had extracted a bobbin of thread from my sewing kit and swallowed the contents. The condition required surgery, which the vet at the emergency clinic performed that night, removing the thread (which was lodged in Lily’s stomach, small intestine, and large intestine) without complications. Lily remained in intensive care for two days before the vet sent her home with a scar on her stomach, some antibiotics, and a list of instructions for postoperative care. She recovered fully and was back to mischief in short order.
As this story indicates, the state of animal health care in America, in terms of the quality of the diagnostics and treatments available, is in many ways on par with that of human health care. And the fact that advancements in veterinary medicine have progressed in close parallel with those in human medicine should come as little surprise: Animals are important to us. They provide us with, among other things, food, labor, and companionship. To ensure that our animals are respectively tasty, reliable, healthy, and happy, we need the services of well-trained veterinarians equipped with the latest technologies. That demand is nicely satisfied.
Most veterinarians in private practice specialize in either large-animal or small-animal medicine, a division that roughly corresponds to the distinction between livestock, such as cows and sheep, and companion animals, such as dogs and cats. Small-animal veterinary medicine is, in important respects, remarkably similar to human medicine. The skills required in small-animal medicine are, by and large, the same as those required in human medicine,1 and today’s veterinary schools are every bit as rigorous as their counterparts in human medicine. After earning their undergraduate degrees, veterinary students must complete four years of medical training and then pass national and state licensure exams. Those who choose to become specialists must also complete an internship and residency and pass an examination for their chosen specialty.2
The technologies used by veterinarians and those used by medical doctors are similar as well. Vets use many of the same drugs as medical doctors, albeit in different concentrations, doses, and formulations;3 and their facilities are equipped with essentially the same kind of medical equipment to treat essentially the same kinds of medical problems. In fact, a great deal of the medical equipment used in veterinary medicine, including surgical instruments, common devices such as stethoscopes, and CT scan machines, is either identical to that used in human medicine or downsized to accommodate the smaller size of most pets.4 In the United States, advancements in human medicine—whether in training, medications, or facilities—are generally mirrored in small-animal veterinary medicine.
Fortunately for our pets, however, veterinary medicine has not paralleled human medicine in two important respects: accessibility and affordability. . . .