Role of Veterinary Medicine in Pennsylvania
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's 3,000 veterinarians provide essential services that profoundly affect the health and well-being of the people of Pennsylvania. Society has entrusted veterinarians with broad responsibility for the health of our animal populations and for virtually every significant aspect of the interactions of animals with human beings and with the environment. The well-established domains of veterinary endeavor include:
- The healthcare and protection of food- and fiber-producing animals, companion and sporting animals and laboratory animals,
- The healthcare, protection and preservation of zoo animals and wildlife, including aquatic species,
- The diagnosis, surveillance and control of diseases transmissible from animals to people, and protection against environmental hazards which threaten animal and human health and safety,
- The health aspects of production, processing and marketing of foods of animal origin, and
- Veterinary, comparative and fundamental biomedical research, and the application of research findings to animal and human health needs.
Services to Agriculture
During the past 50 years the productivity of agriculture, Pennsylvania’s leading industry, has increased remarkably whereas the cost of food in real dollars has continued to fall. The veterinary medical profession has contributed to this success in essential ways. Beyond the traditional services aimed at the prevention, control and eradication of disease in the Commonwealth’s livestock and poultry populations, veterinarians have developed sophisticated on-the-farm programs that focus on increasing profitability by eliminating subclinical disorders, sustaining health and promoting higher levels of performance while being mindful of animal welfare. Food animal veterinarians provide guidance on production efficiency, ration formulation, milk quality, waste management, reproductive efficiency and immunization programs. These measures are crucial in maintaining the viability of family farms, and in the continued maintenance of a safe and affordable supply of milk, meat and poultry products for the Pennsylvania consumer and the global marketplace.
In an ever-dwindling world, where travel anywhere is but a matter of hours and bio-terrorism is an ostensible threat, the ability of veterinarians to recognize and control foreign and newly emerging diseases of livestock and poultry, including diseases transmissible from animals to people, has taken on a greater urgency. Foot and mouth disease, swine fever, fowl plague and other exotic diseases—no longer present in the United States—still exact a heavy toll in many other countries. The recent British epidemic of mad cow disease, with losses in excess of $6.5 billion, has spread to several European countries; and in England 90 people have died with a variant form of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease attributable to the ingestion of infected meat. In Taiwan, the occurrence of foot and mouth disease in 1997 necessitated the slaughter of two-thirds of the national swineherd and, more recently, hundreds of thousands of cattle in Korea and Japan were destroyed to stem a similar outbreak.
Veterinarians play a central role in disease surveillance in the Commonwealth’s farm animal populations. The 1983–84 and 1997–98 outbreaks of avian influenza in Pennsylvania poultry flocks serve as powerful reminders that infectious diseases and food safety are ongoing challenges here at home. Potential losses in excess of $5 billion to the nation’s poultry industry were averted by veterinarians who were the first to diagnose the disease and who played a critical role in its control. Bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, eliminated from Pennsylvania cattle as a serious threat to human health, require constant vigilance to prevent reintroduction of the causative agents.
Americans have become more knowledgeable of the fundamental qualities that unite all animals, including humans, and are increasingly aware that, beyond companionship, pet animals may in some elemental way protect against somatic disease and early death. Today, well over half the families in Pennsylvania own pets, principally dogs and cats, and most are considered members of the family. Companion animals are of particular importance to the elderly living alone, to the physically and mentally challenged and in teaching children kindness and responsibility. Thousands more derive pleasure from the use of dogs as sporting animals in field trials and as hunting companions.
The healthcare of the Commonwealth’s six million or more companion animals is the responsibility of veterinarians engaged in general and specialty practices located in more than 650 cities and rural communities throughout Pennsylvania. Veterinary hospitals and clinics, many equipped with the most sophisticated tools of modern medicine and supported by a network of university and state diagnostic laboratories, work in harmony to maintain a healthy, long-lived companion-animal population. Infectious diseases, including some contagious to humans, are kept under satisfactory control by surveillance, early treatment and immunization. In private practices and in cooperation with humane organizations, veterinarians spay and neuter tens of thousands of dogs and cats each year as a method of population control without which stray animals would present a major public health and safety problem.
Companion animals share the environment of our homes and can act as sentinels of hazardous toxins and other causes of disease that may affect humans. That cancer is the leading cause of spontaneous-disease-related death in dogs and the second-leading cause in cats is a concern for veterinarians.
With more than 250,000 horses—Thoroughbreds, Standardbreds, show jumpers, dressage and pleasure horses—Pennsylvania has the fourth-largest equine population in the nation. The equine industry, valued at over $5 billion, provides 35,000 jobs for Pennsylvanians and contributes significantly to the Commonwealth’s agricultural economy.
Veterinarians specializing in the practice of equine medicine deliver essential services to owners and breeders aimed at maintaining the health and assuring the humane care of their valuable animals. The integrity and good name of Pennsylvania’s mature horse-racing industry is dependent on the cooperation of veterinarians with the Commonwealth’s two racing commissions, enforcing a policy of “no drugs on board” through rigorous pre- and post-race testing procedures.
Governmental agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and many public and private institutions spend millions of dollars each year on experimental animals used in biomedical research. Although some question the moral justification of using animals as research subjects, it is nevertheless true that most of the major advances in biomedical science have involved, or been greatly dependent upon, animal experimentation. Our present understanding of how the fetus is conceived and develops; how the body’s immune and nervous systems function; and how the liver, kidneys, and other vital organs carry out their complex tasks would not have been possible without the use of laboratory animals.
To assure that experimental animals in universities, research institutes, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are used appropriately, treated humanely and spared unnecessary suffering, veterinarians trained in laboratory animal medicine have been given responsibility for the care and management of all research animal colonies. In compliance with the Animal Welfare Act, and with oversight by mandated Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, laboratory animal veterinarians are charged with ensuring that standards of humane animal care are strictly maintained.
Wildlife and Zoo Animals
Rapidly increasing pressures on wilderness areas throughout the world are threatening natural habitats and endangering the survival of many wildlife species. As wilderness areas shrink, the resultant concentration of wildlife exposes animals to the stresses of overcrowding, poor nutrition, and to greater risk of illness from infectious agents. Veterinarians familiar with diseases of wildlife are needed to guide conservationists in development and implementation of measures for the successful management of wild animal populations. This is of particular importance in minimizing the risk of human exposure to wildlife pathogens.
Veterinarians are responsible for maintaining the health of animals in the Commonwealth’s valuable zoological collections. Zoo animals, including many rare and threatened species, require constant veterinary attention to ensure that they are properly housed and nourished, that they do not harbor diseases transmissible to other animals or to the visiting public while making certain that the public does not transmit diseases to them. Veterinarians also oversee breeding programs aimed especially at the preservation of species nearing extinction. A well-established worldwide system of data sharing on disease outbreaks and breeding programs is invaluable in helping zoo veterinarians to maintain the health of many poorly understood exotic species.
Not long ago, the oceans provided almost all of the world’s demand for
fish, shrimp and shellfish, but overfishing and pollution have depleted stocks to a point where demand has dramatically outpaced supply and the price of even the most lowly ocean varieties has skyrocketed. This has spurred investment in commercial fish farming, so that today aquaculture is the fastest growing sector of the nation’s animal industry. Indeed, during the first half of the new century, it appears likely that most of our fish, shellfish, shrimp and lobsters will come from farm sources.
Commercial aquaculture in Pennsylvania and throughout the world is still a high-risk enterprise subject to staggering losses because we still know far too little about the physiology, nutritional requirements, and diseases of fish and invertebrates. Veterinarians trained in aquatic veterinary medicine, as in the University of Pennsylvania’s unique AQUAVET® program, are today engaged in many aspects of research and clinical care, bringing to aquatic animals the advanced medical skills and techniques traditionally applied to terrestrial species. This effort is essential to assure the world’s food supply for the future.
Veterinary Public Health
As society has become increasingly sensitive and demanding about the quality and safety of our foods, veterinary medicine has come to assume greater responsibility and leadership in preventive medicine and public health. In the field and laboratory, veterinarians play an essential role in assuring the wholesomeness of meat, milk and poultry products produced on Pennsylvania farms, as well as in the prevention and control of diseases transmissible directly from animals to man. Approximately half of all human pathogens, including the causative agents of Lyme disease, west Nile virus, rabies, salmonellosis, toxoplasmosis and colibacillosis are of animal origin. Reservoirs of infection in animals account for over three-quarters of the many newly emerging and re-emerging human diseases. Moreover, the spectrum of pathogens is changing constantly in response to changes in the environment, in food production systems, in consumption patterns, and as new and better laboratory tests identify previously unrecognized disease-producing agents.
Veterinarians are responsible for preventing diseased animals from entering the human food chain. At Pennsylvania’s ports of entry, veterinary inspectors prevent the introduction of diseases from imported animals or their products. At the Food and Drug Administration, veterinarians safeguard the wholesomeness of foods of animal origin, and determine whether drugs used on animals or in animal feedstuffs contribute residues or metabolites of questionable safety in meat, milk and eggs. These efforts are buttressed by veterinarians engaged in research on public health problems, in educational outreach and extension services, and in direct, on-the-farm delivery of health care.
As the genetic basis of life is disclosed, Pennsylvania’s vast research establishment has entered the era of “Big Biology." Mapping the genes of humans and animals, discovering the patterns of gene regulation and the universe of proteins expressed by genes will alter radically the way we approach the treatment, control and prevention of disease in both animals and people. Veterinary scientists in the Commonwealth’s universities, full partners with their medical colleagues, are using the powerful new tools of cell, molecular and computational biology to understand and control inherited diseases, cancer and other intractable maladies. More sensitive diagnostic tests, gene-based therapies, more potent pharmaceuticals and more effective vaccines to protect against infectious diseases and food borne pathogens are under development. Research in germ cell biology, cloning and transgenesis will result in healthier cattle, swine and poultry producing safe, wholesome and affordable foodstuffs for the Pennsylvania consumer.