History of Veterinary Medicine - Cat Info Detective

History of Veterinary Medicine

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Greetings feline history buffs! It’s Skye Blake, your intrepid detective, here with some fascinating facts about the history of veterinary medicine.

Ever since humans have needed animals for daily living, they’ve had to deal with diseases, injuries, and proper husbandry of their animals.

paw prints coming in from a distance

The information here is for general knowledge… always see your vet with questions about your cat’s individual needs. 

Who Is Skye Blake?

Skye Blake-updated, white background

Skye Blake, Cat Info Detective, is a curious cat researcher (not a veterinarian) who sniffs out expert, reliable sources about cats, studies their information, then passes it on to you! 

Sometimes there’s not enough evidence for easy answers, so Skye gives you all sides, explains the situation as thoroughly and clearly as possible, and links you to experts on each page. 

All sources are at the bottom of each page so you can do more snooping. 

Animals Needed for Human Survival

sheep looking at camera - shepherds did any medical care

Animals have always been important to help people survive.

Humans value many animals as livestock and beasts of burden, as well as companions.

Some animals give wool and hides for clothing and shelter, sinew for rope, meat, milk and eggs for meals.

Feathers, bones, horns… every part of an animal is useful in various, and sometimes imaginative, ways.

cattle grazing in field on hillside

In ancient times animals like sheep, goats, and poultry, were used as sacrifices in religious rituals.

Farmers and homeowners value my fellow cats for protecting crops and grain stores from mice and rats.

Dogs help herd flocks, guard against predators, hunt rodents and game, and protect their families.

dog with herd of sheep

Humans breed dogs for many different jobs, including rescuing people.

Beasts of burden are animals domesticated and trained for specific jobs.

They’re strong enough to carry people and goods, pull chariots, cannon, carts, or plows, and otherwise handle the burden of heavy things.

clydesdale horses working - beasts of burden need veterinary medicine

For millennia, people have gotten from one place to another by walking, riding or being pulled by a horse, donkey, mule, elephant or camel.

Only recently, with the invention of trains, cars, and airplanes, have people had alternative modes of transportation.

Other examples of beasts of burden are oxen, water buffalo, yaks, llamas, and even reindeer (ever heard of Santa Claus?!)

Veterinary Medicine in Ancient Times

veterinary medicine-ancient document

Going back into the mists of time, very few records are available that mention medical care of animals, but what we have creates a fascinating picture.

Care of animals, whether maintaining health or dealing with injuries and disease, was done for centuries by shepherds, farriers (horse hoof specialists), farmers, herdsmen and priests.

herding dog watching sheep - both dogs and sheep need medical care

In ancient times, when diseases ravaged their flocks and herds, farmers and shepherds often believed the only answers were faith, magic or religious rites.

This is why priests of various religions often were considered healers (ever heard of witch doctors or medicine men?)

They used prayers, incantations, talismans, and various barbaric rituals for humans and animals.

Mesopotamia (Syria, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Turkey)

good shepherd carrying sheep on his shoulders - veterinary medicine

The Bible mentions shepherds and herdsmen, Jewish and Egyptian, who dealt with various animal diseases.

Moses set up the “kosher” meat inspection system that’s still used today.

Animals are often used as symbols in the Bible and caring for them responsibly with kindness is emphasized.

Herd animals like sheep, goats and cattle were a prominent part of religious rituals in Biblical times.

herd of goats - veterinary medicine

“Proverb 27:23 recommends ‘know well the condition of your flocks and give attention to your herds.’

“In Isaiah 40:11 it is written that ‘He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.’”1Early History of Veterinary Medicine & Colonial Animal Caregivers – Revolutionary War Journal“, Harry Schenawolf, January 21, 2020

Mesopotamian records also mention Sumatran doctors for oxen and donkeys.

Their work was the basis for the law “Laws of Eshnunna“, written circa 1930 B.C., which defines rabies and it’s symptoms.

relief of king in ancient mesopotamia - sumatran doctors for animals

The Code sets a fine that must be paid by the owner of a rabid dog if it bites someone. 2A Brief History of Veterinary Medicine“, by Joshua J. Mark, World History Encyclopedia, published 30 April 2020

“The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1754 [B.C.]) recognizes veterinarians as a separate class of medical doctor and sets the fees they are to be paid; clearly establishing veterinary care as a respectable profession.” 3A Brief History of Veterinary Medicine“, by Joshua J. Mark, World History Encyclopedia, published 30 April 2020

Egyptian Veterinarians

Egyptian archer in horse-drawn chariot - ancient veterinary medicine

Egyptian veterinarians were very skillful. This was because Egyptians elevated animals to a high status, even god-like, as reflected in their statues and temples.

They’re most known for their veneration of cats.

During the reign of Amenemhat III during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (c. 1860 – c. 1814 B.C.), scholars wrote the Kahun Papyri that contains texts on various topics, one of which was veterinary practice.

Egyptian drawing of cat and bird

A disease mentioned in the Kahun Papyri is the deadly African Trypanosomiasis (“nagana” or”sleeping sickness”), spread by the tsetse fly to both humans and animals.

“The Kahun Papyrus specifically deals with nagana (given as ushau in the text), prescribes remedies, and specifically mentions the importance of washing one’s hands before, during, and after treating an infected animal. The Kahun text deals primarily with the treatment of cattle but birds, dogs, and fish – all three kept as pets – are also mentioned.” 4A Brief History of Veterinary Medicine“, by Joshua J. Mark, World History Encyclopedia,
published 30 April 2020

bull and cows - focus of veterinary medicine

It also “listed remedies for bulls that suffered from tear duct infections including taurine depression and sadness. Also found were cures for dogs afflicted with internal parasites.” 5Early History of Veterinary Medicine & Colonial Animal Caregivers – Revolutionary War Journal“, Harry Schenawolf, January 21, 2020


warrior on horseback

In China, the earliest veterinary records were about horses and cattle.

Chinese veterinarians were called “horse priests”. They used acupuncture for treating lame or colicky horses.6A Brief History of Veterinary Medicine“, by Joshua J. Mark, World History Encyclopedia, published 30 April 2020


wall mural of Indian elephant with rider

During the Vedic period (circa 1500-500 B.C.) of Indian history, veterinarians were an established and respected profession.

It’s likely religious priests were the first animal healers in India. They were responsible for taking care of the cattle and used herbs for many medical problems.

Sushruta (circa 7th or 6th century B.C.) was known as the “Father of Indian Medicine” and “Father of Plastic Surgery”.

man with horse pulling cart of bananas in India - veterinary care for beasts of burden

He was very influential and developed medical techniques that worked on humans and animals.

By this time, there were physicians trained both in human and animal care, as well as those who specialized in general animal medicine or one type of animal.

“His work, Sushruta Samhita (Sushruta’s Compendium) is considered the oldest text on plastic surgery in the world, a classic of Ayurvedic Medicine, and the basis for veterinarian practice in India.” 7A Brief History of Veterinary Medicine“, by Joshua J. Mark, World History Encyclopedia,
published 30 April 2020

sculptures of people, horses, elephants on relief - India

This and other well-known medical works have sections devoted to the proper care of both healthy and ill animals.

Shalihotra (circa 3rd century B.C.) was a physician who worked only with animals.

He wrote a work about veterinary science called the “Shalihotra Samhita”.

farmer with water buffalo

It’s an adaptation for animals of Sushruta’s earlier human studies on human anatomy, physiology, and surgical techniques.

During the reign of King Ashoka (c. 268 – c. 232 B.C.), physicians established the first known veterinary hospital in the world, using the basic concepts set up by Shalihotra.

Greece – Physicians

bust of Hippocrates - Greek physician who contributed to the growth of veterinary medicine

Hippocrates (the “Father of Medicine”) (circa 460-370 B. C.) left records describing hydrothorax in oxen, sheep, and hogs.

He also tells about dislocation of the hip joint of cattle.

He did a great deal to change the practice of medicine from priests practicing faith healing and incantations to rational, close observation, critical thinking and keeping records of his experiences with injuries and diseases.

herd of sheep

Greek laws didn’t allow human autopsies, so he worked with animals.

Hippocrates believed human and animal bodies can heal themselves. His book “The Nature of Animals” details his observations and conclusions.

“He proposed the use of ‘similars’, drugs that produce symptoms similar to those of the disease being treated, i.e. ‘Homeopathic Medicine’. He coined the phrase ‘First, do no harm’.”8 “Ancient History of Veterinary Medicine“, Fielding D. O’Niell, DVM, MS, Tuckahoe Veterinary Hospital

horse - focus of veterinary medicine for centuries due to human dependence on them

Xenophon (430-350 B. C.) wrote on many topics, one of which was horses and horsemanship, diseases and care of their hooves.

Aristotle (384-322 B. C.) discovered some of the diseases of hogs, cattle, horses, donkeys, and elephants.

sow and baby pig

He wrote “Aristotle: History of Animals VIII“, in which he details a great deal about anatomy, diseases, breeding, and behavior in fish, crustaceans, marine and land mammals, insects, and birds.

Rome – Physicians

Roman chariot driver and team

Roman physician Galen (129-216 B.C.) was a physician who successfully treated many human diseases, wounds and injuries, partly due to his work with studying the anatomies of animals (especially primates and hogs).

Roman law forbade autopsies on people and Galen believed there were similarities between animal and human anatomy and diseases.

primates studied by Galen, contributing to growth of veterinary medicine

About 500 years later, the Roman Vegetius (“Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus“, circa 390 A.D.) wrote at least two works, one of which is “Guide to Veterinary Medicine” (Digesta Artis Mulomedicinae), about diseases and treatments of horses and cattle.

This became the standard reference work for anyone studying and working in veterinary medicine.

There’s a helpful timeline at “Global veterinary medicine timeline – RCVS Knowledge

rod of Asclepius - medical symbol for veterinarian medicine
Rod of Asclepius

Hippocrates, Galen, and Vegetius certainly contributed greatly to understanding and healing animal diseases.

Each one of them has been called “the Father of Veterinary Medicine”.

However, their work added to knowledge already in existence from the Jews, Sumarians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese, Indians, and others.

Europe – Rocky Road to Veterinary Medicine

Circa 216-1000 A.D.

Emperor Charlemagne

Between the time of Galen (Roman Empire) and the Middle Ages, circa 216-1000 A.D., people destroyed records of scientific value, including human and animal medicine.

The powerful Roman Catholic Church was heavily influential with kings and other rulers.

They didn’t allow dissection and autopsies. Medicine became thought of as witchcraft and works of the Devil.

Latin text from middle ages - handwritten by monks

The Church also controlled education, allowing only certain topics.

They declared people heretics who sought to learn or believe anything the Church leaders didn’t like.

This led to excommunication, torture, and sometimes execution.

black cat lying on side

Superstition was rampant and people often used animals as scapegoats for disease and death, especially during epidemics.

They associated cats, especially our black cousins, with witches and black magic, often killing them in gruesome ways to keep evil spirits away.

During the Middle Ages, the Arabs in Spain were the only people studying and recording their work on veterinary medicine.

arabian horse running in desert

They translated all veterinary literature they could find into Arabic, focusing on equine diseases because they highly respected and loved horses.

They developed the Arabian breed for it’s speed and beauty. Good horsemanship was a matter of great pride.

Circa 1100-1300 A.D.

Arabian horses

Giordano Ruffo (Jordanus Rufus), farrier to Frederick II (1194-1250), Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, wrote “De Medicina Equorum”, comprised of original observations in his work with horses.

He believed the superstitions, fables, myths, or astrological influences had nothing to do with diseases and discarded them as “nonsense”.

Before this, people used herbs, prayer, and barbarous ideas such as bloodletting and burning to try to heal illness in both humans and animals.

The Renaissance (1350-1620 A.D.)

drawing of horse skeleton

In 1440 the Gutenberg printing press was invented in Germany.

This opened up the world of books and knowledge to many people who never had access before, including science and medicine.

Farriers (and others) wrote books about horses between the 1500’s and 1700’s, based on their own observations and experiences (not science).

1700-2021 A.D.

horses pulling a cab

Animal plagues in Europe during the 1700’s created crises that exposed the need for formal veterinary education.

Anthrax, sheep pox, and tetanus were just a few that wiped out flocks and herds.

Continuing outbreaks of “rinderpest” (cattle plague) devastated farming communities all over Europe.

cattle grazing in field

Claude Bourgelat, an apprentice-trained veterinarian, founded the first European veterinary college in Lyons, France.

He applied his knowledge to cattle plague and was able to get it under control.

After that, veterinary schools were opened in Berlin (Germany), Sweden, and Denmark.

library - veterinary college

In 1791 the London Veterinary College was established in England to promote the study of “farriery [care of horses] upon rational scientific principles”9History of the Veterinary Profession“, RCVS Knowledge .

Vet Medicine in the United States

1620-1800 A.D.

horses in pasture

In the United States, veterinary medicine developed slowly.

Outbreaks of diseases didn’t become a problem until after the Revolutionary War (1776-1783).

Prior to that, farmers took care of any needs of their animals.

After the war, a couple types of animal “doctors” cropped up.

farrier working on horse's hoof

“Farriers” began dealing with more than just horses’ hooves.

“Cowleeches” took care of cattle and other livestock.

Farriers, although often uneducated and illiterate, thought themselves better than cowleeches.

Education and books were both scarce and people worked with the knowledge they had from others and their own experience.

longhorn cattle

The first record of a rabies outbreak in the U.S. was in Boston, 1785, as a human disease, rather than both human and animal.

In 1795 Texas Fever, a cattle plague, went from the southern parts of the continent up to Maryland and Pennsylvania.

This led to the first laws regarding animal diseases in North Carolina and other states.

1800 A.D. – Present

flock of geese

The first true college educated veterinarian in the U.S. was Charles Clark, who came to America in 1817 and set up a practice.

Other European graduates slowly moved to America and began practicing on the east coast.

Since there were only a few veterinarians and they stayed in the east, the quality of veterinary medicine went downhill considerably for the rest of the 1800’s.

pair of pigs (hogs)

As the country grew, the bulk of “vets” were quacks and snake-oil salesmen.

This neglect of veterinary medicine was partly due to “the mistaken idea that teaching everyone to treat his own animals would constitute a sufficient means of protecting the
livestock industry against the ravages of disease.”10History of Veterinary Medicine” ,” Dr. Earl Guthrie, I.S.C., Iowa State University Veterinarian: Vol. 2 : Issue 1 , Article 1, 1939

Bureau of Animal Industry

cow and calf

The Bureau of Animal Industry (B.A.I.) was formed in 1884, in response to pleura-pneumonia (“lung plague”), a horrible disease that destroyed cattle herds.

It came to the U.S. from Germany in 1843 and spread to 10 states over the next 43 years.

The work of Dr. Daniel E. Salmon and the B.A.I. was effective against pleura-pneumonia and they wiped it out by 1889.

tick on a hand

Other accomplishments of the B.A.I….

  • Controlling hoof-and-mouth disease
  • Creating a federal meat inspection system
  • Discovering that Texas Fever is transmitted by ticks
  • Developing ways to control Texas Fever
  • Developing a quarantine system for animals imported from other countries

Formation of the AVMA

rod of Asclepius - veterinary medical symbol

The problems with pleura-pneumonia in cattle (1843-1889), plus the fact that hundreds of thousands of horses were dying in the Civil War (1860-65), created a need for organized veterinary care and training.

These were serious problems because cattle were vital for food and horses for work and transportation, not only for farmers and ranchers, but for city life as well.

By the end of the Civil War, more than 1,000,000 horses had died.

sketch of civil war battle

Since horses were so important to the everyday life of people, this loss created a need for quickly breeding more horses and importing them from Canada.

In 1863 (during the Civil War), about 40 veterinary surgeons met in New York to form the United States Veterinary Medical Association (USVMA).

This was an outgrowth of discussions between vets in New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, Ohio, and Delaware.


Only qualified veterinarians could become a member of USVMA.

The USVMA eventually became the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) in 1898, which is still oversees the veterinary profession.

“In addition to caring for the nation’s beloved pets – from dogs and cats to birds, horses, reptiles, and more – AVMA’s member veterinarians serve in medical research, academia, prevention of bio- and agroterrorism, food safety, public service, industry, the uniformed services, and beyond.” 11History of the AVMA | American Veterinary Medical Association

Veterinary Medical Schools

New York College of Veterinary Surgeons
New York College of Veterinary Surgeons

Small, private veterinary colleges started forming after 1850, beginning in 1857 with the New York College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Most closed by 1927 and were replaced by state universities, such as Iowa, Purdue, and Cornell.

Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine was the first state veterinary college in the United States and the first in the western part of the country (1879).

man holding kitten - veterinary medicine

The second oldest is the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (1889).

The AVMA has a list of current accredited veterinary schools in North America and around the world.

For the curious cat, there’s also a list of past veterinary schools in the U.S. and Canada.

Veterinarians in the U.S. Military

George Washington with his horse

In 1792, the U.S. Army included farriers to care for horses. An Act of Congress established a formal veterinary corps on June 3, 1916, during World War I.

The Army Veterinary Corps is still in existence today and provides veterinary care to animals of all military branches.

Army soldier with dog - Army Veterinary Corps

Pets, military dogs, ceremonial horses, and other working animals, such as the dolphins and sea lions in the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, are all under it’s care.

Evolution of Veterinary Medicine

camel looking out at desert by pyramids

For centuries throughout the world, the horse was the main focus of veterinary medicine because it was so vital to transportation of people and goods, especially in agriculture and the military.

After awhile veterinarians took an interest in the care of cattle, poultry, swine, and other livestock that farmers raised.

pack of hound dogs

They then focused on the care of dogs, which would have also been from the need to keep working and hunting dogs in good shape.

Between World War I (1914-18) and World War II (1939-45), veterinary medicine finally began expanding to include pets, particularly dogs and cats.

vet listening to cat's heart with stethoscope

After WWII, as exotic pets became more popular, some vets began specializing in working with these mammals, amphibians, birds and fish.

After the war, veterinary medicine developed into the profession we know today that rivals human medicine in training, knowledge and technology.

So, when it comes to us fabulous felines, modern veterinary medicine is the cat’s meow! We even have special vets who work only with kitties!

Want More?

Silver Maine Coon cat sitting among books on a bookshelf

Curious about other feline history? Discover more at “History of Cats“.

And if you want to know more about veterinarians, here are a couple interesting pages…

What Does a Veterinarian Do?

Veterinary Specialists – What Kinds Are There?


Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.

Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.

Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.

Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own.

However, sometimes they refer to primary sources.

When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.

List of Sources

A Brief History of Veterinary Medicine“, by Joshua J. Mark, World History Encyclopedia,
published on 30 April 2020

Ancient History of Veterinary Medicine“, Fielding D. O’Niell, DVM, MS, Tuckahoe Veterinary Hospital

Aristotle: History of Animals VIII” (uchicago.edu)

“Army Veterinary Corps”, GoArmy.com, June 2011

Development of the Veterinary Profession“, History of Veterinary Medicine in the United States”, The History of Equine Anatomy in Veterinary Medicine, Michigan State University

Early History of Veterinary Medicine & Colonial Animal Caregivers – Revolutionary War Journal“, Harry Schenawolf, January 21, 2020

“Galen” – Wikipedia

Hippocrates” – Wikipedia

History of the AVMA | American Veterinary Medical Association

History | Iowa State University”, College of Veterinary Medicine

History – Veterinarian (weebly.com)“, Weebly

History of Veterinary Medicine” ,” Dr. Earl Guthrie, I.S.C., Iowa State University Veterinarian: Vol. 2 : Issue 1 , Article 1, 1939

History of the Veterinary Profession“, RCVS Knowledge

“How Veterinary Science Went From Treating Cattle Plague to Modern-Day Pets | PetMD”, PetMD Editorial, Published: April 26, 2019

Past Veterinary Colleges”, American Veterinary Medical History Society

Retrospective: A Brief History of Veterinary Medicine” by OVRS Staff, Oakland Veterinary Referral Services, September 27, 2019

What is a Beast of Burden? by Mary McMahon, All Things Nature

Updated April 14, 2024

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