Cultural awareness for veterinary clinicians

This guide is designed to help veterinary clinicians to consider cultural differences in clients

Native Americans

Recent census data (2018) indicates that American Indians make up 1.1 percent of Minnesota's total population.

Many Native American cultures have the belief that a person is assigned an animal upon the time of birth. The animals are honored, as they bring teachings (known as “animal medicine”) throughout a person’s lifetime. Many indigenous peoples believe that animals have spirits and enter the human world to give their bodies to supply humans with food, fur and other materials. After their flesh is used the animals return home, put on new flesh and re-enter the human world whenever they choose. (Kirk, 1986)

Historically, a dog was seen as a sacred being that helped people, prior to the horse, by carrying wood, keeping watch of the camp, or towing the tipi. The ideas of the dog and its spiritual connections are complicated and often particular to different healers in the communities. Historians largely feel that once white settlers arrived with horses in the 1700s, dogs lost their place in Indian society, although they were still seen as an invaluable relative.

In our culture, people traditionally don’t own animals the way other cultures have pets; the animals are left wild, and may choose to go to a home to offer protection, companionship, or even to become a part of a community. People feed the dogs and care for them, but the dogs remain living outside and are free to be their own beings. This relationship differs from one where the human is the master or owner of an animal who is considered property. Instead, the dog and people provide service to one another in a mutual relationship of reciprocity and respect.

                                                                                                              – Lakota Tribe Members

As this ethnic group is often financially disadvantaged, it’s important not to mistake a lack of traditional pet grooming for lack of care or concern.

There does not appear to be any cultural resistance to pet sterilization, but tribal members do often need an education on the benefits of the procedure, plus advantages of other veterinary care such as vaccinations and parasite control. Unfortunately, many residents living on reservations face extreme poverty and limited access to veterinary care. They often lack the resources to manage the stray dog and cat population and care for orphaned animals on the reservation. Various veterinary outreach groups offer low-cost spay/neuter events on tribal lands on a regular basis in order to try and manage this problem.

Federal wildlife laws such as the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act generally criminalize the possession or commercialization of the feathers and other parts of such birds. Eagles play a unique and important role in the religious and cultural life of many Indian tribes. Federal wildlife laws recognize the importance of accommodating tribal spiritual needs by allowing exceptions for the religious purposes of Indian tribes.  Eagle feathers are made available to tribal members every year from the Fish and Wildlife Service's National Eagle Repository.


  • Meyers, R., Weston Jr., E. 2020. What Rez Dogs Mean to the Lakota. Op-ed. SAPIENS.
  • Kirk, R. 1986. Tradition and Change on the Northwest Coast: The Makah, Nuu-chah-nulth, Southern Kwakiutl and Nuxalk. Seattle: University of Washington.
Last Updated: Apr 24, 2023 11:27 AM