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Veterinary services

by  Hamish Mavor and Bob Gumbrell

Cats and dogs make up the largest share of veterinarians’ work in New Zealand – but vets are also vital to the farming sector. Urban vets run specialist clinics and may offer pet grooming and boarding. In the countryside, tougher working conditions and long travel distances have led to a shortage of rural vets.

Early vet services, 1850s to 1940s

Early days

The first veterinary practice in New Zealand appears to have been that of J. Thomson of Epsom, who advertised in the New Zealander newspaper in August 1850. This was followed by an advertisement from a J. W. Moorhouse in the New Zealand Spectator on 18 June 1856, stating that he would be opening a hospital for sick horses and cattle in the Hutt Valley.

In 1888 J. F. Maclean was appointed the first full-time government veterinarian to the livestock branch of the Lands Department. Until 1893, when the Department of Agriculture was formed and appointed three new veterinarians, there were probably no more than 17 vets in the country.

War vets

Many horses were sent from New Zealand to the South African War (1899–1902). A veterinarian from the Department of Agriculture was put on each ship to care for the animals. This deprived the country of a number of vets for a while, although some returned after delivering the horses. Others served in the war.

A few groups of farmers had organised to obtain veterinary services as early as 1903, when the Southland Farmers Union employed a veterinarian in Invercargill.

By 1909 the Department of Agriculture’s division of veterinary science had 26 veterinarians – 19 of them meat inspectors at freezing works around the country, and six involved with ‘field duties’. The chief veterinarian was C. J. Reakes.

When the First World War began, government veterinarians were involved in selecting 9,998 horses to go overseas with the troops. The vets staffed two mobile veterinary sections and a mobile veterinary hospital in Egypt.

A number of veterinary practices funded by groups of farmers were established, including at Balclutha in 1907, Kaipara in 1916, Ngātea, Tūrua and Tāneatua in 1922, on the Rangitīkei plains in 1923, in Central Taranaki in 1931, Rātā in 1934, and Eltham in 1937.

Dairy cooperatives were set up in Northland, Taranaki, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Each employed their own veterinarian.

New Zealand Veterinary Association

The New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) was registered in 1923. In 1943 it formed the Veterinary Services Committee with representatives of government and industry to look at the requirements for providing veterinary services to all livestock owners. Also in 1943, the Dominion Federation of Farmer Veterinary Services was formed to coordinate activities of cooperative practices.

Vet shortage

In the 1940s, New Zealand did not have enough veterinarians – partly because training was not available in New Zealand. In 1943, the Dairy Board and Meat Producers Board provided bursaries for 14 New Zealand students to train as veterinarians at the University of Sydney, followed by 20 more in 1945.

Veterinarians were recruited from Britain and Canada, but there was still an acute shortage. At the end of the Second World War, fewer than 50 veterinarians were practising in New Zealand. Most were in cities.

Post-war developments

Veterinary Services Council

In 1946 the government set up the Veterinary Services Council (VSC) to promote a nationwide veterinary service for livestock owners. It took over the roles of the Dominion Federation of Farmer Veterinary Services and the Veterinary Services Committee.

The VSC encouraged veterinarians to set up practices (known as clubs) throughout the country. It offered grants for clinics and houses for accommodation, loaned equipment, and initially even subsidised vets’ salaries. Alan Leslie, the VSC’s first executive officer, was a driving force in the rapid expansion of veterinary clubs in the following decade.

Not quite the same

In the 1950s, Feilding vet Geoff Sommerville was called by the local vicar to help his wife. She was about to give birth, and the local doctor was clearly not going to get there in time. Sommerville obliged, and all went well. But it was a revelation for the vet, who had never realised that human babies were born head-first – unlike cows and sheep, whose forelegs came first. Overall he preferred cows, which were easier to assist!

Employment contract

In 1951, after three years of negotiation, the VSC produced a standard contract for veterinarians employed by veterinary clubs. In the 2000s, with some modifications and updates, this contract was still used for rural veterinary employment and defining associated salary scales.

Expansion of veterinary clubs

By 1955, nearly all livestock farmers had access to a veterinary service, mainly supplied by clubs. Recruitment of overseas veterinarians continued, from Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark.

No school

A veterinary school was almost established at the University of Otago in 1904. The proposal was approved by the government and a four-year course prepared for a Bachelor of Veterinary Science degree. However no-one enrolled, and the plan lapsed.


The VSC provided bursaries for New Zealanders to study at university veterinary schools in Sydney and Brisbane – a four-year course, after a year’s medical intermediate at a New Zealand university. All VSC bursary holders were bonded to work in veterinary clubs or government service for the first five years after graduation.

In 1962 the Faculty of Veterinary Science was set up at Massey University in Palmerston North – so New Zealanders no longer needed to train in Australia.

Types of vet clubs

Veterinary clubs were set up by grants from the VSC, debentures from farmers, and loans from banks and dairy factories. Committees of local farmers managed the clubs, with input by the senior veterinarian. There were three types:

  • dairy-factory clubs, which had compulsory membership of all farmers who supplied a particular factory
  • clubs set up in association with dairy factories but with voluntary membership
  • clubs in dairying or meat and wool farming areas, with voluntary membership and no dairy-factory involvement.

Private and contract practices

As farmers became more aware of the value of rural veterinary services and the advantage of working with a veterinarian, private and contract practices developed. In 1963, the VSC approved the formation of contract practices from existing veterinary clubs. Senior veterinarians managed the practices and leased assets from the club.

Later developments

In 1992 there were 830 veterinarians in clinical practice in New Zealand. Of these 72% were in private practice, 15% in clubs and 13% in contract practices.

In 1994 the Veterinary Council of New Zealand replaced both the Veterinary Services Council and the Veterinary Services Board, which had been responsible for registration and regulation of vets.

In 2008 clubs still flourished, but the proportion of private and contract practices was high. Some large veterinary groups were being set up to cover large geographical areas.

Changing roles

Women veterinarians

New Zealand’s first female vet was Pearl Dawson, who obtained an American diploma in veterinary science by correspondence around 1920 and went into practice in Auckland.

By 1950 there were eight registered women veterinary surgeons, and by 1993 about 330, out of a total of 1,900 vets. The number of women veterinarians training at Massey University increased gradually, and by 1997 66% of the second-year students were women.

In 1995 about 69% of women vets were in clinical practices. Nearly two-thirds of women were working in companion animal (small animal) practices. Most of the rest were in government or university employment.

Sporty vet

Pearl Dawson, New Zealand’s first woman vet, was also an excellent hockey player, and received the British Empire Medal for services to sport. It was said that her vet work helped develop her strong arms and shoulders, and made her a formidable hockey opponent.

By 1999 the number of women vets had risen to 645 – 34% of all vets. In 2008 46% of vets were women – 1,033 out of a total of 2,235 practising veterinarians.

1960s onward

From the 1960s veterinary science and veterinarians took a greater role in pastoral farming, particularly of sheep and beef cattle. With increasingly intensive farming practices, there was a need to better understand animal diseases and how to manage them.

Disease control programmes were set up, and were refined as new challenges arose, such as internal parasites developing resistance to anthelmintic drenches. Veterinarians highlighted the increasing effects of such animal diseases on farm income.

The relatively low individual value of sheep and beef cattle, and the costs of drugs and veterinary fees, meant that first-aid treatment was often a trade-off – at some point it is cheaper for a farmer to dispose of a sick animal, and lose its production or carcass value, rather than spend money on curing it.

Special interest groups

In the early 1970s the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA) set up a special interest group for veterinarians working with sheep. The group later included beef cattle, as the farming systems were similar.

Over the years other special interest groups have developed, including groups for dairy cows, deer, goats, pigs, and camelids (llamas and alpacas). In 2008 the NZVA had 14 special interest branches, and 15 regional branches.

Technology advances

Farm production increased as new technology developed, such as ultrasound scanning for detecting pregnancy in cattle and sheep. Although some work, such as scanning or injections, was done by technicians, veterinarians were usually involved in planning, and in incorporating results into the overall farm plan.

Veterinarians have benefited from new DNA techniques for diagnosing disease, modern drugs and vaccines, and computer technology for managing information of all types.

Technicians and scientists

Trained technicians have played an important role in farm animal production over the years. In the mid-20th century the livestock officers of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries were closely involved in eradicating brucellosis in cattle, and controlling tuberculosis in cattle and deer. Herd testers and artificial-breeding technicians worked on measuring dairy cattle production and selective breeding of dairy cattle.

Agricultural and veterinary scientists have played an important role in developing modern methods of animal production and disease control. They have often relied on veterinarians for the application of this technology in the field.

Veterinary nurses

From the earliest times, vets (then almost all male) received assistance and support from their wives, who acted as receptionists, theatre nurses and general help. From 1982 formal training courses for veterinary nurses were offered through polytechnics, and since 1995 advanced training has been available at the Massey University Vet School. The New Zealand Veterinary Nurses Association was formed in 1991.

Preventative medicine

Vaccines for farm animal diseases were introduced to New Zealand early in the 20th century, and were initially produced by government laboratories. The development of the privately owned Tasman Vaccine Laboratories in the 1950s, together with the importation of drugs by companies such as Burroughs Welcome and Coopers made a wide range of vaccines available. More recently, both the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and commercial vaccine companies have developed a range of vaccines for sheep against infectious conditions that cause abortion.

Rural veterinarians in the 2000s

In early days the treatment of various sick animals, and dairy cows with milk fever or calving problems, were the main duties of the veterinarian. By the 2000s veterinarians were still involved in these duties, but more emphasis was on disease prevention.

Veterinary wisdom

In 1865 the cattle disease rinderpest ravaged the United Kingdom. Veterinarians who advocated quarantine and slaughter of any animals that had contact with infected beasts were ignored. Eradication of the disease would have been relatively simple if this advice had been followed – instead 2.25 million cattle died. The experience encouraged governments to follow veterinary advice and to set up quarantine procedures.

Exotic diseases

MAF Biosecurity New Zealand works to keep New Zealand free from diseases that may arrive from overseas. However, veterinarians involved in farm animal practice are the people most likely to recognise unusual animal diseases – so training in exotic disease detection and control is part of their role.

Rural vet shortage

In the early 2000s there was an ongoing shortage of rural veterinarians, due to the physical work, long hours, distances travelled (many rural vets cover 50,000 kilometres a year), and relatively low pay. Although about 80 new vets graduated from Massey each year, most were women who often preferred urban practices with less travel and more flexible hours. A small number of vets from other countries worked in New Zealand rural practices.

In 2005 prescription animal remedies were deregulated, so they could be sold by agencies other than vets. This affected product sales by vet clinics and also vet charges to farmers, which were previously discounted when accompanied by product sales. This threatened the viability of some vet practices. The New Zealand Veterinary Association has expressed concern that a reduced number of vets in the countryside posed more risk of exotic disease outbreaks and undetected animal welfare problems.

Urban vets

The jobs of rural and urban veterinarians differ in many ways. Rural vets do most of their work on the farm or at the owner’s residence, and may make just a few visits per day because of the long travel distances. They deal with large, commercially valuable animals such as sheep, cows or horses, and may be called out at any hour of the day or night.

Pocket pets

The term ‘pocket pets’ was used initially to describe mice and rats, but has expanded to cover the range of smaller animals kept as pets – some of which are too large to fit in a pocket. It includes guinea pigs, ferrets and rabbits.

An urban vet may have 20 clients per day and contact with another 10 or more to report lab tests or discuss problems. Fifty years ago, when fewer people had cars, urban vets made house calls to see sick animals. In the 2000s, sick animals were usually brought in to a clinic, which was likely to have more than one vet. The animals, which were mainly pets, included cats, dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, caged birds, fish, reptiles, ferrets, rats and mice – but about 95% were cats and dogs (in around equal numbers). Most zoos had their own vets.

By law, veterinarians were required to be available every day, 24 hours a day, to attend to animals. In the larger centres vets set up after-hours clinics that they took turns in attending – a practice adopted by some rural vet practices.

Felix and Fido rule OK?

Cats and dogs made up 27% of veterinarians’ work in 2008. Dairy cattle were 13% of their work, sheep and beef 12%, horses 9% and deer 3%. Pocket pets and birds were 11%. Compliance activities, meat inspection, biosecurity and export certification totalled about 9%.

Urban vets generally provide a wider range of services than rural vets. Clinics have been set up that specialise in such things as eye problems, brain tumours, or skin problems, and may have facilities for X-rays, MRIs, dentistry, re-creation of joints and heart valve transplants. Some people are prepared to spend large sums to treat favourite pets.

In addition, urban vets may offer services such as pet grooming, boarding, and breeding advice. They may sell a wide range of pet foods, flea treatments, other medicines and pet accessories, which can make up a significant part of their income.

Acknowledgments to Bernie Mavor for typing the notes prepared by Hamish Mavor prior to his untimely death.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Hamish Mavor and Bob Gumbrell, 'Veterinary services', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Hamish Mavor and Bob Gumbrell, published 24 November 2008