Zoobiquity: What human medicine can learn from veterinary medicine


First aired on The Current (15/6/12)

It's an old joke in the veterinary community: What do you call a vet who treats only one species? A doctor! Traditionally, physicians have focussed solely on human patients. But Barbara Natterson-Horowitz likes to mix it up. She's a cardiologist and psychiatrist. You might find her performing procedures at the UCLA Medical Centre in the morning and at the zoo in the afternoon. She's just co-written a book called Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing.

Natterson-Horowitz became fascinated with the intersection of human medicine and veterinary medicine by chance. A cardiologist by training, she was offered the opportunity to give animals ultrasounds at the Los Angeles Zoo. One day, she was assigned to give a tamarin monkey an ultrasound and the vet in charge warned Natterson-Horowitz to tone down her eye contact with the animal because he was concerned that the patient might experience capture myopathy.

Natterson-Horowitz realized that capture myopathy was a lot like broken-heart syndrome found in human patients. When she went home to research the comparisons, she realizes that myopathy in humans had only been studied and discussed for about a decade. But in the world of animal medicine, it had been discussed for years and years. "I had this a-ha moment where [I thought] 'My gosh, we need to learn so much from veterinarians,'" she told The Current guest host Gillian Findlay. "Here was this diagnosis in the veterinary world and this diagnosis in the human world. But because veterinarians and physicians don't talk to each other, we hadn't really connected the two."

Natterson-Horowitz decided to explore other similarities in human and animal illness. Whenever she came across a human diagnosis, she turned to veterinary research to see if there has been a similar diagnosis in the animal world. The amount of overlap she found was surprising: cases of cancer, obesity, STDs and even suicide came up again and again in the veterinary literature. As a result, Natterson-Horowitz began thinking about medicine differently and about her role as a physician differently too. "I think we really have not been, as physicians, very open to thinking about the natural occurrence of disease in animals around us."

Natterson-Horowitz also sees benefits for patients. Many human cancer patients come up with reasons as to why this happened to them. It's because they smoked too much or drank too much or worked too long in that factory — and in some cases, this is true. But in other cases, disease is simply a matter of random chance. "If we stripped away all our bad human habits, we'd still be left with the reality of disease," Natterson-Horowitz said. If we are able to think about disease within the whole environment, not just the human population, it "offers [patients] the opportunity to reframe our diseases."

If dinosaurs got cancer (and they did), what does that mean for how cancers develop in human populations? If koalas are struggling with a chlamydia epidemic (and they are), what does that mean for how STDs spread through human populations? And if parasite-infected insects exhibit suicidal tendencies (and they do), what does that say about mental health? These are the questions Natterson-Horowitz believes zoobitquity — the title of the book and the term she and her co-author coined for the exploration of the overlap between human medicine and veterinary medicine — can answer.

"There are animals all around us who get sick every day with infections and cancer and are born with problems with their heart or kidneys and we have not been looking at that at all," she said. "We think this is a tremendous opportunity to advance science, to advance our understanding of health without testing."

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