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Veterinary Medicine

Bringing vet care to diverse communities

November 19, 2009
By Carol Borchert

Students graduating from veterinary schools across the United States are facing a changing demographic landscape as they prepare to enter practice. Language barriers, cultural disparities, and socioeconomic status all contribute to the challenges veterinarians confront in providing animal health care in diverse communities.

Human-animal bond varies across cultures

Children bring their puppies to a well-animal clinic in San Vicente, Nayarit, Mexico.

The Professional Veterinary Medical Program in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences is addressing these challenges by providing students with classroom-based instruction, including “Spanish for Veterinarians,” and experiential learning opportunities at home and abroad.

“One of the questions we ask ourselves is how do we prepare our students to best meet the needs of all families, regardless of their race, ethnicity, income, or education,” said Dr. Regina Schoenfeld, coordinator of Instructional Design and assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences.

Navigate cultural paradigms

“We first have to understand how the human-animal bond is different in different cultures, then help our students navigate through these cultural paradigms through cultural awareness and language skills, and also give them opportunities to work in diverse settings to experience firsthand how geography, culture, and social norms affect attitudes toward animal care.”

According to the latest Census data from 2000, the Hispanic population in the United States was at 12.5 percent (35.3 million) of the total population. By 2050, that number is projected to increase to 24.5 percent (102.6 million) of the total U.S. population. Veterinarians, said Dr. Schoenfeld, need to understand how demographic shifts will affect their practices, and develop the tools necessary to meet both animal and public health needs of a changing population.

Animal's role in the family studied

Drs. Regina Schoenfeld, left, and Mary Wright help a child with his puppy at the San Vicente clinic.

Dr. Schoenfeld, along with Dr. Lori Kogan, coordinator of Outcomes Assessment and associate professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences, and Dr. Mary L. Wright, a private practitioner, have been conducting a multidisciplinary investigation of the human-animal bond in Hispanic culture both in the United States and Mexico, with funding from Colorado State University and from the Banfield Charitable Trust.
Through a series of clinics in Colorado, California, and diverse locations in Mexico in 2008 and 2009, pets obtained preventive care and owners were interviewed to determine the animal’s role in the family along with other data sets including medical, animal and human demographics, and background information.

Veterinary students involved in the clinics also gained practical experience working in novel settings (such as in the town square in Monteon, Mexico). Pets were given general exams, tested and treated for common parasites including Ehrlichia and Anaplasma, and examined for transmissible venereal tumors.

Differing attitudes

“When we look at veterinary medicine on a global basis, even if people don’t have much income they are still attached to their pets and want their pets to be healthy,” said Dr. Wright. “But there are different attitudes. In the villages where we held our clinics, people couldn’t imagine putting their dogs on a leash; they would consider that cruel. If they want their dogs to walk somewhere, they pick up the dog’s front legs and walk them on their hind legs. The dogs are amazingly patient with this practice.

“Far fewer animals are spayed or neutered, again for perceived implications on the animal’s happiness, but overall spaying is far more socially acceptable. Probably the greatest differences we see are in the roles of the animals in agricultural as compared to more urban communities.”

Animal roles vary in agricultural vs. urban communities

In Mexico's agricultural communities, animals are much more likely to be viewed as valuable working animals versus companions.

In the agricultural community of Monteon, animals are much more likely to be viewed as valuable working animals, herding cattle or guarding buildings, rather than family companions.

In San Vicente,  blue-collar working community close to Puerto Vallarta, most pets are kept for their value as companions. The average lifespan for most of the dogs was 5 to 7 years, with the most likely causes of death being chronic infection and disease.

Veterinarians practicing in these communities don’t likely see the problems associated with geriatric pets, including arthritis and dental disease. The values in San Vicente, said Dr. Schoenfeld, are closer to those individuals most likely to immigrate to the United States, while views of the Monteon residents are more representative of indigenous Mexican culture.

Education, accessibility

“Especially in rural communities, we can do so much more through education and accessibility,” said Dr. Schoenfeld. “People are much more open to spaying female dogs when they understand the benefits. Young mothers want family pets to be free of parasites, not only for the animal’s health but for the health of their children. The  educational piece is that animals need care and, when they get care, they thrive and do better.”

Editor's note:
  A paper with study results from the Human-Animal Bond in Hispanic Culture has been completed and submitted to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Findings also were incorporated into the “Spanish for Veterinarians” curriculum in the Professional Veterinary Medical Program at Colorado State University.

Originally published in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Insight newsletter, Fall 2009.