My extended family in India is (not so) secretly perplexed about my desire to become a veterinarian. The way it’s been explained to me is that in India, you go to vet school if your grades can’t get you into med school. I don’t know if it’s still like that or if that’s a preconception of the older generation, but regardless, it’s what I grew up hearing.
I have to admit, way back when I was seven years old my reason for wanting to be a vet when I grew up was that I thought animals were cute and fun. If loving animals were all that there was to veterinary medicine though, I would have given up during the semester sophomore year when I decided to take orgo, physics and genetics all at once.
Veterinary medicine is not just about helping animals — it’s about helping the planet. One Health is a popular phrase right now; it represents the idea that collaboration between veterinarians and other science professionals (doctors, researchers, environmentalists, etc.) is key to ensuring the health of the planet as a whole. One Health is based on the notion that all animals, including humans, are connected to each other and to their environment, and treating any animal or part of the environment will have an effect on everything else — like the butterfly effect, which suggests that a butterfly flapping its wings can eventually result in a tornado in another part of the world.
This all might seem a little esoteric and philosophical. How practical is “One Health” besides being a fancy sounding buzz word to ask about on vet school applications? The first thing that probably comes to most people’s minds are zoonoses — diseases that can be passed from animals to humans. Rabies, the plague and ebola are particularly well-known and gruesome examples. If we can figure out how to treat the diseases in animals, we can figure out how to treat them in humans as well (or even how to stop the diseases form spreading).
A lesser-known (I only heard it for the first time last month, in fact) but potentially even more important term is zooeyia — the positive effect animals can have on human health. The therapy horses that help to rehabilitate injured veterans, seeing-eye dogs that guide the blind and your pet that calms you down after a stressful day are all examples of zooeyia. At first glance, zooeyia seems to have less of a biological basis than zoonoses, but consider the muscle growth encouraged by the horses, the psychological stability provided by the seeing-eye dogs and the reduction in blood pressure that comes from cuddling with your pet.
What I personally find exciting is that veterinary research — ranging form cancer to orthopedics — is sometimes funded by the National Institutes of Health because it has the potential to improve human health. In fact, the NIH acknowledges the importance of veterinary research to human health to the extent that it even provides training grants to veterinarians. This is partly due to the fact that veterinary education focuses on the anatomy and physiology of a variety of different species, so veterinarians can more easily apply their research to human health and vice versa. Also, human and animal ailments are very similar at their most basic level — your cat’s broken bone doesn’t heal any differently than your own bone would.
Aside from these direct human-animal collaborations, it’s also important to remember that treating animals is only one of the many possible career paths veterinarians have to choose from. They can also use their expertise to work in food safety, agricultural consulting, epidemiology or even at a legislative level. One could easily demonstrate how any of these examples could work to benefit the environment as a whole. Let’s take the first one, as the Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe has been in the news lately. Monitoring food safety impacts the people and animals who eat the food, the health of the food itself, the industry that produces the food and the people who work in it and the spread of contaminants from one food source to another.
So, my dear skeptics (cough relatives cough), veterinary medicine is not just about puppies and kittens and bunnies (they’re just a perk). It’s about helping the world, and hopefully making sure that we don’t end up like most of the dinosaurs did — at least any time soon. I bet your doctor couldn’t say that. Not that I’m biased, or anything.
Nikhita Parandekar ’11 is a first-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.