Small animal practice: ancient times - Veterinary Practice
Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now



Small animal practice: ancient times

Bruce Vivash Jones begins a new series looking at the origins of veterinary practice, starting with a look at the first recorded pet dogs and veterinary procedures.

The history of the veterinary profession: 1 of 3

There is no historic date to commemorate the start of veterinary practice, but we can presume that treatment and care would have begun with the dog – the first animal to be domesticated, as a hunting companion and a guard and the only one with which humans have developed a specific and personal relationship.

The earliest mention of British dogs appears in the writings of Greek and Roman authors. The first was Grattius, before 8 AD, a Roman poet and contemporary of Ovid. He wrote a poem called Cynegetica (a word derived from the Greek, related to hunting with dogs) stating that “if you could cross the surging and treacherous seas to reach the Britons you could find a dog of courage, speed and resource”. He did also refer to their unattractive form and appearance, but that might be a poet’s opinion!

Next was Arrian, 86-160 AD, a friend of the Emperor Hadrian. In his monograph titled Cynegeticus he mentions Celtic dogs, believed to be the ancestors of the Irish Wolfhound.

Poetic mentions

Next, in the late 2nd century AD, Oppian, a Greek living in Syria composed a poem, also titled Cynegetica. He makes favourable mention of British dogs, “which the wild tribes of painted Picts call Agassaei”!

His description, “round in shape, very skinny, with shaggy hair, a dull eye but provided on its feet with deadly claws  with rows of sharp, close-set teeth, which contain poison”, would not appear to be welcome in the Crufts Show rings, but he praises its value in tracking: “easily superior of all other dogs, and the best in the world”.

Several other Roman writers also mention that Britain was famous for its export of what were then termed mastiffs but these were probably of terrier size.

The last known extant work on dogs written under the Empire was by Nemesianus, in Carthage in the late 3rd century  AD. Again titled Cynegetica, he comments that Britain was a well-recognised canine source having replaced Gaul for  breeding dogs: “Britain sent the fleetest hounds, the best in the wide world for the chase.” It was to be about 1,000  years before another significant book on dogs would appear.

Initially both the Romans and the Greeks valued dogs for their hunting capabilities. Later they began to be categorised by use – as hunting, sporting, shepherding, war dogs and the canes villatici or house guard dogs and the catelli or catellae, the pet dogs. Romans had become interested in dogs and a form of selective breeding was practised for the desired end use.

The invasion of Britain in 43 AD imposed “Romanisation”, with its social structure and values that were to last for some  350 years. In Rome and other major cities there are records of dogs being kept as pets, a practice which was also adopted in Britain.

Household integration

The contemporary literature records that pet dogs were well-integrated into households throughout the Empire. Visual evidence of the human bond is shown in one of the massive silver platters included in the Sevso hoard of silver (of unknown provenance) where a figure is obviously gently fondling the chin of an appreciative dog.

One of Martial’s epigrams (c40-104 AD) portrays an almost cloying sentimentality about Issa, a favourite bitch. Favoured catelli were varieties of the Maltese dog and the Emperor Claudius is recorded as having a small white dog of this type.

There is, however, at this stage in history, no mention of specialised canine veterinary care and treatment.

Evidence of the keeping of dogs in British homes, while shown in sculpture and wall paintings, has to rely on osteo-archaeology. R. A. Harcourt in the Journal of Small Animal Practice of 1967 describes a case of multiple osteoarthritis in a Romano-British dog from a Suffolk site. The bones, excavated with late Roman pottery, were of an animal similar to fox terrier size.

Harcourt reasoned from the osteo-pathology that the dog would have had difficulty in foraging for food, suggesting  that it must have been a house dog. He also examined, from a 2nd-4th century AD Roman site in Sussex, the remains  of adult dogs with long bones that were shorter than those of a domestic cat. It was judged that these were from very  small dogs kept as household pets. Other canine osteo-pathology reports of dogs in these early years are scarce but  have been found at several human habitation sites.

The ancient literature related to dog care is sparse and usually concerned with breeding, kennel management and the care of hounds and hunting dogs. Much of this advice was sound and no doubt would have been applied in Britain. Healthcare guidance was limited, but so, of course, was basic knowledge of the causes and treatment of disease.

Both spaying and castration were practiced but no details of these procedures have survived. Topical surgery and  wound care, following experiences gained from treating equine and human injuries, would have been performed.

There were few medical specialists in the Roman world, apart from a few extraordinary practitioners and these were  only in major cities. Most medical care was undertaken in the home, as shown by the frequent excavation of surgical instruments. In such establishments any veterinary care may well have been carried out by medical “staff”, usually  educated servants or slaves.

Finally, two other texts can be mentioned. De veterinaria medicina, a compilation of knowledge written by Palladius, in the late 4th or early 5th century only has a mention of dogs and rabies, but records quite a lot about other species.

Also Cynosophian, the first work dealing solely with dogs since Nemesiansus by Demetrius Papagomenus, physician to the Byzantine Emperor Michael Paleologus, 1223-1282. This imperfect compilation of early Roman and Greek writings, dog-lore and witchcraft is only mentioned to demonstrate how low the veterinary art had fallen.

The art of diagnosis, prescribing effective medicines and education in animal care would make little progress for another 1,500 years.

In part two we will examine the practice of dog care in the Mediaeval Age.

Have you heard about our
IVP Membership?

A wide range of veterinary CPD and resources by leading veterinary professionals.

Stress-free CPD tracking and certification, you’ll wonder how you coped without it.

Discover more