How are Animals Used in America’s Military Medical Corps?

January 23, 2020

A military working dog and its military police handler inspect vehicles. Image from publication.

Since the dawn of time, human beings and animals have co-existed. Animals are worshipped, eaten, used for clothes, and are man’s best friend. Not only have they been on the frontlines of our daily lives, but also of war. From wars in Ancient Rome to the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and to the war in Iraq, there is no war animals have not been a part of. The publication Military Veterinary Services from the Borden Institute’s Textbooks of Military Medicine series available at the GPO bookstore consists of a collection of essays that sheds light on the close relationship between the U.S. military and animals. It is worth reading to expand your traditional understanding of which animals are being used by the military and how they are being used. You will be surprised by what you learn, and by how much you come to appreciate these animals. Below are a few gems highlighted in this work.

When George Washington so famously demanded, “A regiment of horse with a farrier” be built, he realized that by taking care of animals, we are ultimately taking care of ourselves; in doing so, he set the blueprint for the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. The Veterinary Corps, founded in 1916, is one of six corps that fall under the U.S. Army Medical Department. In 1980, it began providing veterinary services to all military branches. The purpose of the Veterinary Corps is to protect the warfighter by conducting food safety inspections, providing animal defense functions, providing veterinary public health services to animals (medical and surgical), and performing biomedical research (related to diseases). This book details how exactly the Veterinary Corps accomplishes this mission statement.

Food safety

In the past, lack of regulation led to filthy and dangerous conditions in American food factories. Food conditions abroad were even worse. This created problems for soldiers stationed domestically and abroad. This issue of food safety was systematically tackled by the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. The Corps began inspecting military facilities domestically and abroad, continuously monitoring the quality of food sources available to soldiers, in hopes of preventing disease and harm to soldiers.

 Animals and defense

We know the role animals play in our everyday lives, but what role do they play in the military? The Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, and the Coast Guard all use military working animals. The military’s use of animals depends on the mission. Dogs are used for security, law enforcement, combat tracking, and explosives and narcotics detection, while horses were primarily used for cavalry in the past, but are now used more for ceremonial purposes. But did you know the military also uses dolphins, beluga whales, sea lions, special operations horses, mules, carrier pigeons, and peacocks? Peacocks serve as security alarms at select government facilities; pigeons were not only used in ancient times, but also as early as WWI and WWII as information carriers; and sea lions and dolphins are used for swimmer defense and object recovery. In the civilian world, animals are often used as mascots to give spirit to a cause or a sports team or political party. The military is no different. The Army uses a mule, the Navy uses a goat, the Marines use a bulldog, the Air force uses a falcon, and the Coast Guard has several animal mascots, of which the most famous is a Rottweiler named “Sinbad”.

 Animals and medicine

A veterinary technician, bandages the paw of a scout dog c.1945. Image from publication.

Animals are also used for medical purposes. In light of studies confirming the effectiveness of animal companionship in reducing blood pressure, helping relieve anxiety, and in combatting depression and stress, pets are often given to soldiers, especially ones returning from war.

That said, with all that animals do for us, they too get depressed, get diseases, and sometimes are even casualties of war. The Veterinary Corps realized that by taking care of animals we are ultimately taking care of ourselves. Dr. Calvin Schwabe, the father of veterinary epidemiology, coined the term, “One medicine,” which says the well-being of animals depends on the well-being of humans, and vice versa. Zoonotics, sicknesses passed on from animals, amounts to 60 percent of known human pathogens. This is one example of animal-human linkage. In the Civil war, nurses helped control the spread of rabies. This threat emerged again a century later in the Vietnam War. The Veterinary Corps works diligently researching and finding solutions to such problems, learning from the past, and setting a path for the future.

The emphasis the Veterinary Corps places on understanding this animal-human linkage is echoed in its structure, and is displayed by the relationship between its physicians and veterinarians. Although the two professions don’t interact much in the civilian sector, that is not the case in the military. In fact, despite serving two separate populations, physicians and veterinarians often receive identical training (See Military Veterinary Services, chapter 13, introduction, section titled “Implementation of the One Health concept” for further detail).

In conclusion, this authoritative resource covers many areas about animals in the armed forces. However, the majority of the publication focuses on the medical veterinary services. The essays featured in this volume cover a range of topics from detailing the activities of MEDEVAC (movement of animal and human casualties from the battle field), to the history of military working dogs to the history of privately owned animal care facilities in the U.S. Army, and everything in between.

Additionally, Preventive health: preventive veterinary care and Veterinary connections produced by the Army Public Health Center can be found through search in the Catalog of Government Publications.

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About the authorBlogger contributor Mohammed Butt is a Technical Services Librarian in GPO’s Library Services & Content Management unit.

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