A Visit From The Veterinarian

“La Visite du Vétérinaire” was painted by French artist Sylvain Grateyrolle in 1880.  It depicts a veterinarian evaluating a sick cow while a small group of people look on. 

In 1880, when cattle were commonly part of communities, most people seeing this image would probably have understood the story it tells.  Today, since few people have exposure to cattle in any way, the details of the scene are easy to overlook without a little interpretation.

There are two cattle in the picture, and one is lying down.  We can’t tell for sure if the cattle are cows or oxen, but based on the concern of the woman and girl, I am inclined to think the animal is a milk cow. 

A normal cow (or steer)  would get up on the approach of a stranger but this cow does not feel well, as shown by her drooping ears, half closed eyes, and recumbency in spite of a strange human holding her ear!

A “downer cow”, one that can’t or won’t get up,  is a diagnostic challenge even today, and especially in the past without access to technologies like blood chemistry and ultrasound.  The veterinarian in the painting feels the cow’s ear, probably because cold ears are a hallmark of hypocalcemia in cows.  As a veterinarian myself, I can identify with the vet’s sober expression; this is a serious situation and so much depends on the diagnosis!  

The onlookers include men, women and children. They all look grave and even anxious. Maybe this animal’s milk is crucial in turning a diet of bread and potatoes into more balanced and palatable nutrition?  Maybe it is time to plow, and the future harvest depends on this animal’s present health?  In any case it is obvious from the attitudes of the people that this animal is not merely a unit on a production line, but rather an important individual in the daily work of the family and community. 

Author: Barbara Corson, veterinarian

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