Human and animal medicine: The differences and similarities

Farm Forum

“Why don’t you just apply to med school? It’s easier to get in.”

I’d encounter that remark back when I was applying to veterinary schools. Our pre-veterinary students at SDSU are still getting that question all these years later. (By the way, I’m not sure it’s necessarily true). Most of us shrugged the comment because we were more interested in working with animals and their owners than on the human side of medicine.

The underlying premise of these comments is that the practice of medicine is similar whether it is for animals or people. And I believe that it’s true. Physiology, risk factors for chronic diseases, and even some infectious agents are often very similar between animals and people.

If that’s the case, one would think that there would be a close working relationship between veterinarians and physicians. In reality, that’s not always the case. It’s not due to any friction or animosity between the two professions – we both just get busy doing our own thing on a day-to-day and patient-to-patient basis.

That’s why it’s extremely unique and valuable when both sides can sit down to discuss topics that affect both animals and people. Such an occurrence recently took place at SDSU when a “One Health” meeting brought together not only South Dakota veterinarians and physicians, but animal producers and public health experts. “One Health” refers to the concept that we are all in this together: the health of animals can affect the health of people and vice-versa.

This meeting’s topic was an important and sometimes contentious one: use of antibiotics. Physicians and veterinarians alike use these drugs to treat illness and prevent sickness in their patients. And that’s where the contention arises. Overuse of antibiotics threatens to produce bacterial strains resistant to our current medicine cabinet of drugs. A frequent cry from public health people is that use of antibiotics in animals contributes to antimicrobial resistance in humans. A frequent response from animal caretakers is that overprescribing by physicians is the problem, not animal uses.

Our meeting featured conversations that were pointed, but respectful and extremely insightful. We directed the presentations not towards trying to assign blame, but rather trying to understand the efforts both sides are taking to more responsibly use antibiotics.

It was the different challenges faced by both professions that fascinated me the most. Physicians are directing their effort toward reducing all uses of antibiotics. Their challenge regards the expectations of their patients. Patients coming to a doctor expect to be sent home with a prescription for something, even antibiotics will not improve that ailment (an upper respiratory infection or ear infection, for example). This is an ongoing battle for physicians wanting to practice good antimicrobial stewardship.

Veterinarians have it easier in that their patients don’t come in asking for the latest drug they saw advertised on TV! But they are faced with their own challenges in deciding how best to treat and prevent illness in animals, in light of economic constraints.

The discussion regarding specific disease conditions was particularly enlightening. An example is viral respiratory disease. Antibiotics are not helpful in these cases, and physicians are becoming very tuned in to educating clients that they don’t need them for these cases. Go home and get some rest and you’ll feel better in a couple days.

So it’s very surprising to physicians that veterinarians don’t approach viral respiratory disease in cattle the same way. The animals just need to get some rest and they’ll feel better in a couple days, right? Viral respiratory disease in cattle is different, though. For several reasons, it typically leads to severe bacterial pneumonia. Therefore, giving cattle antibiotics in this case is necessary and the standard of care.

Another medical difference was evident when we discussed pinkeye. Pinkeye in a child is often a self-limiting infection that if not treated with antibiotics will probably go away. Pinkeye in a calf is a severe invasive disease that if not treated with antibiotics will result in blindness.

Veterinarians and physicians are probably some of the busiest people you know. So it’s especially good – and increasingly important – when they can both get together and understand each other’s situations. The similarities and differences can be enlightening!

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.