Small animal practice: the late mediaeval age - Veterinary Practice
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Small animal practice: the late mediaeval age

Bruce Vivash Jones continues his series on the history of the profession with a look through various books, one of which provides an overview of canine veterinary care in the 16th century.

The history of the veterinary profession: 2 of 3

William Harrison, in his continuation of Holinshed’s Chronicles of England (1586) wrote of the British breeds of dogs. Of the many types listed, one – the “spaniel gentil” – indicates that by the end of the 16th century the pet dog had achieved a place in society.

These were described as being “… sought out far and near to satisfy the nice delicacie of daintie dames and wanton willies and instruments of follie to play and dallie… to keep companie withal in their chambers, to succour with sleep in bed, to nourish with meat at board, to lie in their laps and lick their lips”.

The canine interest was, however, based in hunting and sporting activities. Many books were published but The Noble Art of Venerie or Hunting (1575) appears to be the first to include canine diseases. Translated from the French, it made a serious attempt to discuss dog care and health.

Written for huntsmen, it includes an extensive review of the origin of hounds before discussing breeding, rearing, weaning, feeding, training and kennel and housing design.

Discussion of canine disease, while mixed with some strange beliefs, also indicates the author’s practical experience. Spaying of bitches is discussed (but no details given): the recommended time for the procedure is suggested at about two weeks into the first pregnancy. The operator is warned to be careful and not to cut the “veynes”.

A doubtfully valuable recipe for bringing a bitch into heat is described: “…take a two heads of Garlike, half ye stone of a beast which is called Castor, with the juice of Gressys, and a dozen of the flies called Cantharides, boyle all these together (in a potte holding a pynt) with mutton, and give the pottage two or three tymes into the bitch to drynk, and she will not faule to go proude”.

Many treatments are suggested under “Receipts to heale sundry Disease”. Skin problems would appear to have been significant and both mange and ringworm are named: it was recognised that these were contagious. Parasites, both external and internal, were known. For the former, stress was placed on kennel management and the use of medicated washes using herbal decoctions with added soap and salt. Mostly herbal based vermifuges are described.

The suggested medications would have had some useful effect, indicating that there was a knowledge base founded on practical experience.

Topical surgery is featured, describing techniques to remove the “wolfe”, a “disease or botch hapneth often into dogs”. The translator suggests that this could be the same as a “wen”; this Old English word was used for a sebaceous cyst, or swelling under the throat or an excresence or tumour on a horse. Removal is suggested, either by incision or topical medication – as neither anaesthetic nor restraint methods are indicated, the imagination does not suggest a satisfactory outcome.

Being written for hunting dogs, there is a lengthy section on wounds, bruises, fractures and internal injuries. Suturing was a regular procedure and using a needle with a “foursquare point” is advised. It was emphasised that kennel staff should never go boar, bear or wolf hunting without needles, linen thread and lard.

The book provides an overview of canine veterinary care in the 16th century – with opinions that were to show little change for the next 200 years. Of particular interest is the section on “madnesse”, probably the first attempt at canine pathology to be published in Britain.

Madness (rabies) in dogs had been known and feared since ancient times and it is unsurprising that it was the first canine disease to receive specific attention. The author was Thomas Spackman, a physician; his book, published in 1613, was titled A declaration of such grievous accidents as commonly follow the biting of mad Dogges, together with the cure thereof.

He stressed immediate remedial measures to cleanse the bite wound,
with either salt water or the urine of a boy (plain or brackish water was proscribed).

Describing the symptoms in dogs and man and recognising that these are not always shown, he discusses the possible cause: “a most pernicious and deadly poison engendred [sic] and bred”, being the most immediate and inward cause.

He sensibly advises that it is best not to attempt to cure a dog and recommends euthanasia to prevent transmission of the disease.

Spackman also reviewed the ancient prophylactic for rabies prevention in dogs by removal of the “worm” or “lyssa” from under the tongue, or by removal of the end of the tail with the sinews, before the pups were 40 days old. The use of both of these barbaric procedures continued for many years. Possibly the latter might have been the origin of docking in dogs.

There were many books published in the 17th century concerning hunting dogs. These books all had sections dealing with disease, but with little new knowledge, much plagiarism and frequent recommendation of charms and similar remedies.

One charm to protect against rabies was to write on paper the inscription, “Y Ran Qui Ran, cafrom cafratem cafratoque”, place in an eggshell and force down the dog’s throat.

The mention of madness in dogs was in every book: rabies was the problem and hazard that was pre- eminent in any discussion of dog care.

It is noteworthy that dogs have dominated these articles. Little information about cats is available. They were probably introduced to Britain in the later years of Roman occupation as a rodent control measure in farm stores and houses.

Gradually they achieved a pet status. At the same time they were associated with witchcraft and seen as a witch’s “familiar” – a demon – the feline nocturnal habits, stealth and killing nature created an unfavourable image.

Cats were associated with magic and heresy, with much persecution instituted by certain sections of the Church. Veterinary care for the feline was still a long way off.

In the next part we move to the 1700s and the creation of canine-specific practice.

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