The medical treatment of man and beast has for so many centuries been associated in the mind of the public with the administration of drugs, that any attempt to combat disorders without them is regarded with suspicion by the less-educated portion, and of the majority it may be said there is a sense of dissatisfaction where the human or animal physician neither writes a prescription nor supplies a bottle of medicine. The advice to the average horse owner to apply cold water or change the diet is received in the spirit of Naaman when told to dip seven times in the river Jordan for the cure of his leprosy. Nor is this all the fault of the public; the medical art when no longer confined to the priests, who doctored souls and bodies indiscriminately, soon drifted into the hands of persons who sold mysterious medicaments for the cure of various diseases, their remuneration consisting in the profits on such sales, just as the prescribing chemist continues to do to this day despite all medical laws forbidding him to " act as an apothecary ".
If we read the advertisement pages of any agricultural or sporting journal we shall find ample reason to doubt if the technical instruction afforded by university extension schemes does not fell far short of the requirements of the time, since greater fortunes are now amassed by advertisers of quack medicines than was ever the case before in the history of the world. There is a very general popular belief that some herb or herbs exist which will effectually cure any and every disease, if we can but succeed in their discovery and proper application.
These bad old traditions will take long to break down, and in self-defence, in order to obtain a just fee for his professional skill, the country veterinary surgeon is sometimes compelled to prescribe some harmless stuff for a client who sees value for money only in some tangible form like a big bottle. The owner of a horse with a cough is apt to suppose that its cure can and ought to be effected by a bottle of medicine or some balls if they are "good" for such a purpose; nay, he has been taught to believe it by the cure-alls advertised and the early works on farriery, whose authors speak of " a certain cure" for this or that disease which they did not themselves understand, but merely " poured drugs of which they knew little into bodies of which they knew less".
It is not generally understood that the same disease may result from a variety of causes, and no panacea can therefore be expected. The conditions under which the patient has been living must be enquired into, the nature of his work, food, water supply, clothing; and a broad view must be taken of the circumstances of the case, and the line of treatment to be pursued will depend on the nature, origin, and stage of the disease.
The importance of hygienic conditions and good nursing are becoming better understood both by the professional and amateur horse doctor, but the latter, with less knowledge of drugs, has the greater faith in their efficacy. Let it not be supposed that we underestimate the value of drugs when judiciously employed, but that we desire to impress our readers with the fact that drugging is no effectual substitute for rational treatment.
The cause of a disorder should be sought and removed, and drugs may assist the process in many instances. Time may be gained in facilitating a natural process, pain saved, and even life preserved, which without their aid would have been lost; but the list of specifics can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Perhaps no class of medicines are more abused than aperients, the habitual use of which do not cure constipation but induce an artificial need of their repetition, where judicious dieting without drugs would help the body to return to that healthful condition for which it is always striving in spite of improper diet and exposure to unfavourable conditions. The tendency to recover from, as well as to resist, disease is commonly spoken of as the vis medicatrix natures, and should be the prescriber's chief reliance. Expectant treatment, or waiting for nature to assert its preservative influence on the life and well-being of each living creature, is more adopted by the experienced physician than the amateur, who desires some heroic remedy that shall cut short diseases, many of which pass through successive well-known stages, and anything that would hinder the process might prove fatal to the patients. The variolous diseases, for instance, must pass through their various phases of incubation and eruption, papulation, vesication, or pustulation, desquamation, and final recovery, which latter cannot take place if the course of the disease be interrupted by improper treatment. There are no remedies known even to the best informed which will cure such diseases as variola, whether in man or horses, and any treatment adopted should be of the expectant order. Excessively high temperatures may be reduced by judicious administration of drugs; constipation may be relieved or other special symptoms alleviated; but the disease having a certain course to run, the patient must be kept under the most favourable conditions as to food, clothing, diet, and atmosphere.
To prescribe for horses, a knowledge of their organs, the functions they perform in health, and the nature of those departures from health which we call disease, is absolutely indispensable. In addition to this we require a knowledge of therapeutics, or the action of medicines, in order to employ them successfully.
This department of veterinary science has not made progress in proportion to surgery, hygiene, and other branches of medicine. No sufficiently accurate observations are recorded over a long period of the action of drugs upon animals in health, but out of the collective experience of our best veterinary surgeons a workable amount of knowledge has been evolved. The horse owner who reads this remark will naturally wonder that the schools have not taken the matter to heart, and devoted much more labour to that side of the practice of medicine which always appeals most to the layman.
One of the obstacles to progress in our knowledge of the action of drugs upon the horse in health is the Anti-vivisection Act, which makes penal the administration of the simplest drugs by way of experiment, while permitting many barbarous practices if done with the object of curing disease or rendering animals more useful or profitable.
Our knowledge of the action of drugs, we have said, is unsatisfactory, and although we have borrowed largely from the older profession of human medicine, we have an accumulated knowledge of an empirical kind which is valuable, although we cannot give a reason in all that pertains to it "for the faith that is in us". With all the advantages enjoyed by our medical friends, their practice is still largely empirical, and the scientific reason is often not forthcoming until a century or two has proved the utility even of such medicines as quinine and sulphur.