Research Article: The conceptualisation of health and disease in veterinary medicine

Date Published: November 7, 2006

Publisher: BioMed Central

Author(s): Stefan Gunnarsson.


The concept of health, as well as the concept of disease, is central in veterinary medicine. However, the definitions “health” and “disease” are not generally acknowledged by veterinarians. The aim of this study was to examine how the concepts “health” and “disease” are defined in veterinary textbooks.

Veterinary textbooks in several disciplines were investigated, but only textbooks with explicit definitions of the concepts were selected for examination.

Eighty out of the 500 relevant books within veterinary medicine were written for non-veterinarians. Eight percent of the books had an explicit definition of health and/or disease. More frequently, textbooks written for non veterinarians did have definitions of health or disease, compared to textbooks written for professionals. A division of health definitions in five different categories was suggested, namely:

Few veterinary textbooks had any health or disease definition at all. Furthermore, explicit definitions of health stated by the authors seemed to have little impact on how health and disease are handled within the profession. Veterinary medicine would probably gain from theoretical discussions about health and disease.

Partial Text

The concept of health, as well as the concept of disease, must be regarded as essential to veterinary medicine. Nevertheless, it appears to be uncommon that broader discussions about these basic concepts occur within the veterinary society. The increasing diagnostic possibilities to identify diseases make it crucial to define disease and health, as this basic distinction gives the very fundament of disease classification.

The veterinary textbooks at the libraries of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) were examined during the spring of 2003. The literature investigated compiled veterinary textbooks in several disciplines, such as pathology, internal medicine, bacteriology and immunology.

About 80 out of the 500 relevant books I found within veterinary medicine were written for non-veterinarians, such as veterinary nurses, farmers or the common man. Thirty-nine of the 500 books (8%) comprised any explicit form of, more or less developed, definition of health and/or disease. Twenty-two books out of these 39 were written for veterinarians or veterinary students, five were veterinary dictionaries, two were handbooks for veterinary nurses and ten were written for farmers or animal owners. Twenty-five volumes out of the 39 were written in English, four were in German, five were in Swedish, two were in Norwegian, two were in Danish and one volume were written in French.

Few veterinary textbooks had any health definition at all. In general, common textbooks of pathology were lacking any suggestion of how to define health and disease. Typically, the textbooks of pathology and internal medicine comprised chapters about each system of organs, i.e. one chapter about diseases of the integument, one about disease of the respiratory system, one about disease of the digestive system and so on. These textbooks contained contributions from several authors, responsible for text sections of the diseases of an organ system or a group of diseases. Then the book chapters were put together by the editors [e.g. [16,17]].

The concepts of health and disease are rarely given explicit definitions in veterinary textbooks. The definitions found could be split into five categorised of health definitions. There was no obvious connection between stated health definition and medical approach, i.e. classic veterinary medicine or alternative veterinary medicine. Veterinary medicine would gain from a broader theoretical discussion about health and disease.

The author(s) declare that they have no competing interest.




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