The World Veterinary Day is marked annually, every last Saturday of April. It is a day set aside to celebrate the noble profession of veterinarians and para-veterinarians, provide recognition, and honour these set of caring and selfless people, who have dedicated their lives to safeguarding the health and well-being of animals, and by extension, people, and communities around the world. On this day, we also remember all animals – whether pets and food sources, domestic or wild. It serves as an opportunity for the veterinary profession to highlight its role in protecting public health and welfare, responsible animal ownership and animal welfare, as well as provides an opportunity for people around the world to learn more about the work that veterinarians do.
Though veterinary medicine offers the first and best line of defence against many zoonotic diseases (diseases transmissible from animals to humans), which could threaten public health and our national security, it remains one of the most under-rated and misunderstood professions in Nigeria. One is asked questions like “Do animals take drips too?”, “A caesarian section for a goat? – Enikan o gbebi ewure to fi bi were, enikan o gbebi aguntan, o bi ti e laa ye”, meaning, a female sheep or goat never needs any form of assistance during delivery. “Animal doctor wey dey eat im patient”. Let us delve a bit into the veterinary world. The word “veterinary” comes from the Latin word “veterinae,” which means “working animals.” The history of veterinary medicine goes as far back as 3,000 BC, where Urlugaledinna, who lived in Mesopotamia, Western Asia, was reported to be “an expert in healing animals”.
The veterinary symbol is the staff of the Greek god Aesculapius, encircled by a sacred serpent, overlaid by the letter “V”. It is held as a symbol of hope and triumph over illnesses and diseases. To become a veterinarian in Nigeria, a candidate must have obtained not less than five credits at the Senior Secondary School level in English, Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology, to qualify to attend any of the 11 accredited veterinary schools in Nigeria. Admission into veterinary schools is highly competitive, with the number of qualified applicants admitted varying from year to year. After a minimum of six years of intensive theoretical and practical trainings, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree is awarded. The graduate is inducted into the veterinary profession where he/she takes a life-long oath to “to use his/her scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society, through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health and the advancement of medical knowledge …”
Continuing education programmes to help practicing veterinarians acquire new knowledge and skills are done annually by the Veterinary Council of Nigeria (VCN) and other bodies. The VCN also ensures that veterinarians uphold good standards. Further knowledge can also be obtained through specialised postgraduate and/or fellowship studies. Veterinary specialties include surgery, theriogenology (obstetrics), internal medicine, clinical pharmacology, dentistry, ophthalmology, pathology and preventive medicine. The scope of work of veterinarians includes, but not limited to, companion animal practice, caring for dogs, cats, monkeys, horses, rabbits, ferrets, and birds; food animal practice, caring for farm animals, such as poultry, fish, pigs, cattle, sheep, and goats; mixed practice; wildlife practice, caring for zoo, range and park animals.
These veterinarians prevent, diagnose and treat diseases and disorders in animals and advise clients on the feeding, hygiene, housing and general care of animals. In the banking sector, veterinarians are employed for animal insurance schemes, agricultural-based loans and related purposes. Veterinarians in the uniformed services (army, navy, air force, police, immigration and civil defence), protect the country against bioterrorism. They are responsible for veterinary care of government-owned tracking and forensic animals, and biomedical research/development. Veterinarians employed at research laboratories and institutions of higher learning teach students, and are involved in finding new ways to diagnose, treat, and prevent animal and human health disorders.
When veterinarians proved that insects can transmit disease in the 1900s, research was launched to control typhus, malaria, bubonic plague, and yellow fever. Agencies involved in public health, environmental protection, food safety and inspection such as the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), also employ veterinarians. They serve as epidemiologists in cities, state, and federal agencies, investigating emerging and re-emerging animal and human disease outbreaks. These veterinarians promote public health through surveillance of disease trends, food safety practices, and facility sanitation. They also help in developing programmes to prevent the spread of diseases such as malaria, Ebola, rabies and avian influenza. They equally help ensure the safety of food processing plants, restaurants, food and water supplies.
Not only that, they study the effects of pesticides, industrial pollutants, and other contaminants on animals, people and the environment (one-health). In government-owned regulatory bodies such as the Veterinary Council of Nigeria (VCN), National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), air and sea port authorities, veterinarians are employed to prevent the introduction of foreign diseases into any country, to supervise international and interstate shipments, quarantine and inspect animals and animal by-products brought into the country. Veterinarians in NAFDAC and NDLEA evaluate the safety and efficacy of medicines, vaccines, medical products, biologics, pet foods and food additives. Veterinarians also work in management, technical sales and services, agribusinesses, pet food companies, pharmaceutical and biomedical companies.
They are also in demand in the agricultural chemical industry, private testing laboratories, wildlife conservation, feed, livestock, poultry industries, and disaster management. There are veterinarians involved in local, state and federal governments, working with legislators to shape laws that protect the health, welfare and well-being of animals and people. Like many other professions, there are common challenges veterinarians face in the course of carrying out their duties. Arguably, no profession intersects food security and health, the two major challenges facing the very existence of man, like veterinary medicine. Many veterinarians work in tough environments, without regards to gender, working long hours, taking turns being “on-call” at night or on weekends.
They are dealing with burnout, and broader risks to mental health. The VCN has over 9,000 registered members, but only a fraction are actively practising veterinarians. Many are in different professions or form part of the brain-drain out of the country. According to the VCN, Nigeria requires a minimum of five veterinarians, per local government area (LGA) for effective containment of disease outbreaks and monitoring. With 774 LGAs, this means Nigeria requires 3,870 veterinarians to work solely at that level. There aren’t enough veterinarians in active practice even for this requirement. Unfavourable government policies, inadequate loan facilities, job pricing, low self-perception, and cost-benefit of treatment are other challenges veterinarians face.
The hardest part of veterinary medicine is knowing that you can do something to help an animal presented to you, but being told that you can’t, because of the client’s financial, moral or religious objections to diagnostics or treatment. It is even harder to watch that animal walk out the door without the medical attention it needs! A successful veterinarian must have immense knowledge for each of the animal species as they possess different anatomic and physiology features, have an inquiring mind and keen powers of observation, be compassionate, and demonstrate basic language and communication skills, as they meet, talk, and work with a variety of people, manage employees and businesses.
The month of April, therefore, serves as a wake-up call for pet owners, who have procrastinated or forgotten to get regular checkups for their animals. This is the perfect time. You may call your vet, or hop onto their website, to book an appointment to make sure your pets are healthy and happy. Celebrate with a pet on World Veterinary Day by buying them a healthy treat or a new toy to show them how much they mean to you. As Will Rogers opined, “the best doctor in the world is the veterinarian. He can’t ask his patients what is the matter, he’s got to just know”. Arise, salute the veterinarians, come join in the celebration on April 29 when it’s the World Veterinary Day, 2023!