What is ethnoveterinary medicine?

Evelyn Mathias, October 2001

Ethnoveterinary medicine refers to people’s knowledge, skills, methods, practices and beliefs about the care of their animals (McCorkle 1986).

bullet Ethnoveterinary versus modern medicine
bulletAspects of ethnoveterinary medicine
bulletVariations in ethnoveterinary medicine


Ethnoveterinary versus modern medicine

Farmers in West Java, Indonesia, raise their goats and sheep in sheds on stilts with a slatted floor, and feed them with cut fodder. As a result the animals have few intestinal worms. If an animal gets ill, the farmer drenches it with a preparation of herbs using recipes learned from her parents or husband. 

While West Javanese smallholders commonly boil parts from several herbs, Samburu pastoralists in Kenya often make medicines by soaking just one plant. 

These are only two examples of the many ways livestock raisers all over the world keep their animals healthy and productive. ‘Ethnoveterinary medicine’ contrasts the knowledge developed by local livestock holders from the scientific or ‘allopathic’ veterinary medicine taught at universities. Both are dynamic and changing. Like scientific veterinary medicine, ethnoveterinary practices have been developed through trial-and-error and deliberate experimentation. But ethnoveterinary medicine is developed by farmers in fields and barns, rather than by scientists in laboratories and clinics. It is less systematic and less formalized, and is usually transferred by word of mouth rather than in writing. 

Ethnoveterinary information is in danger of extinction because of the current rapid changes in communities all over the world. In fact, many communities nowadays use a mix of local and modern practices.

Promoting the conservation and use of ethnoveterinary medicine does not mean downgrading or ignoring the value of modern medicine and attempting to replace one with the other. However, it does mean recognising that both types have their strengths and limitations. In some instances, they complement each other, in others, local practices will be the better choice, and again in others modern practices should be recommended (see Limitations and strengths).

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Aspects of ethnoveterinary medicine

Ethnoveterinary medicine is often taken to mean using medicinal herbs. However, it has more to offer: 

Information: Stock raisers commonly know when their animals are sick. They can describe the disease signs, which season the disease commonly strikes, and what types of animals are affected. They also know where to find the best pasture, how to avoid tsetse-infested areas, where to find saltlicks, and many, many other things. 

Practices: This is much wider than just the use of herbal medicines. It also covers bone-setting, vaccination against pox and other infectious diseases, branding, and careful management practices. 

Tools and technologies: These range from simple tools such as thorns to vaccinate animals, to complex animal housing adapted to local conditions. Farmers are familiar with the various materials available in their environment, and skilfully take advantage of their various qualities. 

Beliefs: Beliefs are commonly thought of as superstitious -- something negative that has to be suppressed. Still, some beliefs can be very useful because they improve the animals’ condition or prevent them from getting sick. Examples are the feeding of salt that has been blessed, protecting animals against evil winds, and not letting animals on pastures where other animals have died from diseases such as anthrax. So it is advisable to have a close look at beliefs and encourage these if they promote animal health. 

Breeds: Local breeds, such as dairy buffaloes, are the outcome of centuries of selection. At first sight, they may produce less than introduced breeds, but they may not score as poorly if both input costs and outputs are considered, instead of only the outputs. Local breeds are presently receiving increased attention in connection with attempts to conserve their dwindling genetic resources. 

Human resources: Knowledgeable farmers, herders and local healers are treasurers of knowledge and can be valuable partners in development projects.

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Variations in ethnoveterinary medicine

Ethnoveterinary medicine differs not only from region to region but also among and within communities. Depending on the work division and professional specialisation, men may know more about large animals while women commonly are more familiar with small animals or with certain type of diseases such as mastitis and neonatal care. Hunters may have a wealth of information on hunting dogs. Knowing about such differences can be crucial in the selection of respondents in research and partners for extension approaches, the design of training courses, and the selection of trainees for community-based animal health workers.

Mathias-Mundy and McCorkle 1989, Martin et al. 2001

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