The Surprising History of Veterinary Medicine for Dogs and Cats

And the ‘dangerous’ woman who played a vital role.

The surprising history of how cats (like this tabby) and dogs came to be treated by vets
Photo: Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH

We are used to the idea that veterinarians treat dogs, cats, rabbits and other small animals, but it wasn’t always so. Before the automobile, the main role for vets was in the treatment of horses. As the number of horses declined, two British government reports (in 1938 and 1944) suggested vets should specialize in the treatment of farm animals. 

The change to small animals is often explained as due to increasing standards of living and people’s desire for companion animals after the Second World War. A new report by Andrew Gardiner of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies (University of Edinburgh) shows the real reason is the rise of animal charities, and the role of one woman in particular: Maria Dickin.

It’s a tale of politics and intrigue. Gardiner says that in the period between the two wars, “a new territory of animal care was opening up. By the time the veterinary profession realized that things were moving beyond its control, it was almost too late.”

Maria Dickin founded the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals of the Poor in a basement in 1917. Dickin was in her 40s and had no previous experience of looking after animals, but she saw the need for them to receive care. “Bring your sick animals! Do not let them suffer! All animals treated. All treatment free” said the sign.  

The organization grew enormously. Ten years later, they treated 410,000 animals in a year and had even opened clinics in other countries. Although the people who took their animals to the PDSA would not have been able to afford to go to a vet, the veterinary profession still looked down on the organization. 

The people who worked at PDSA clinics had no veterinary training. This was not illegal, because the law at the time only prevented people from calling themselves veterinary surgeons without training, not from caring for animals. The large number of animals passing through the clinics meant that staff quickly became experienced, and apparently many vets at the time – more used to horses – were not good at handling small animals. 

In 1926, when a woman called Sarah Martha Grove Hardy left the PDSA £50,000, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons tried to claim some of the funds. G.H. Livesey, a prominent vet, called people involved in animal welfare ‘cranks’ and said, “All of us who have had experience in dog practice, know that there are ladies (generally childless) who have to turn their attention to something, and nearly always they turn to dogs.”

The funds from Grove Hardy were used to set up a Sanatorium in Essex. Gardiner describes it as “a comprehensive treatment, training and headquarters complex with numerous wards, stables and kennels, X ray and UV light treatment facilities and a spacious operating theatre. Educational facilities included lecture rooms and a library.” The Sanatorium had just one actual veterinary surgeon. As well as treating animals, it was a training facility for PDSA staff.

The vets of the time were not keen on other animal charities either. Writing in 1931, the then-secretary of the RCVS Warwick Fowle said "The lady [Maria Dickin] is dangerous and energetic; the RSPCA is timid and apathetic."

Since the law could not be used to close down the animal clinics, the veterinary associations turned to a moral argument about animals having a right to ‘proper’ diagnosis and treatment. Gardiner writes that they were also beginning to realize that treating dogs (and cats) could be enough to support a business. Changes in the law were being considered that would have meant the PDSA had to hire vets – not that many would have wanted to work there.

Against this backdrop, Dickin (now retired from some of her PDSA roles) and the President of the RCVS, G.H. Livesey (he of the ‘cranks’ jibe above), came to an agreement. Large PDSA clinics would hire a veterinarian, while smaller ones would refer to a local vet when appropriate (and local vets did not have to take the work if they did not want to). 

Although some vets supported the change, many did not. One wrote “I would like to point out … that the ‘dear little doggy’ stuff is quite a futile line to take with our profession. Some of us, thank goodness, have a real job of work to do. He mentions little doggies and pussies having a vote in the matter. Believe me, if this were the case, the cats would be too occupied in passing anti-castration laws to worry about the PDSA.”

Nonetheless, the changes went ahead and over time vets developed a better appreciation of dogs and cats. In 1957 the British Small Animal Veterinary Association was formed. PDSA still exists today and provides free veterinary treatment to 2.3million animals a year in the UK. 

Gardiner says, “The role of Maria Dickin and the PDSA has been marginalized within the history of British veterinary medicine.” His account shows that, in developing a network of animal clinics that the veterinary profession had not imagined possible or desirable, they started a new discipline of small animal practice.

Gardiner, A. (2014). The 'Dangerous' Women of Animal Welfare: How British Veterinary Medicine Went to the Dogs Social History of Medicine, 27 (3), 466-487 

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