Much can be learned about people’s health from focusing on the health of animals

Caitlin Cash

By A Contributor

For most of us, a trip to the veterinarian’s office and a doctor’s appointment are regarded as two unrelated experiences, just as we assume our health has no relation to the animals we visit at Sunset Zoo. “Zoobiquity” however, challenges the notion of this mutual exclusivity. 

The term - from the Greek word zo, meaning “animal,” and the Latin ubique, denoting “everywhere,” - is the nomenclatural creation of the authors, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers.  It describes cooperation between human and animal practitioners and this is where Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers believe the future of medicine is to be found. 

Natterson-Horowitz did not always take the blended approach. She trained as a cardiologist and practiced at University of California-Los Angeles Medical Center. Her only exposure to veterinary medicine was the occasional consult at the Los Angeles Zoo. It was only during an assist on an emperor tamarin in heart failure that she realized the cross curricular potential. The veterinary staff warned her not to make eye contact with the tiny South American primate lest she induce capture myopathy, a condition prey animals are prone to when face to face with a perceived predator. Adrenaline courses through the bloodstream, “poisoning” the muscles with the potential for fatal damage in the case of the heart. 

Upon reflection, this reminded Natterson-Horowitz of a human condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a disorder that appears similar to a heart attack but is caused not by blockage. Instead, a bulge in the ventricle brought on by emotional trauma causes it. She wondered if these two diagnosis, although they went by a different name for different patients, were actually the same. More importantly, she wanted to know why a myopathy recognized in veterinary medicine for over four decades - something every first year vet student could recognize - was being heralded by the medical community as a ground breaking “discovery.”  This realization gave rise to a challenge. She took detailed notes daily on her rounds at the UCLA Medical Center on every condition she encountered. She researched veterinary journals and databases to discover if animals were afflicted as well. 

The answer always came back yes. From the “big killers” like cancer - jaguars carry the same mutated gene that makes some humans particularly susceptible to breast cancer - to mental and emotional disorders like depression and binge eating to the unmentionables like sexually transmitted diseases it turned out that if humans were susceptible, so were animals.

She also recognized that the research being done not only by veterinarians but by zoologists and evolutionary biologists could be a tremendous asset to the medical community. So why the disconnect between fields? 

A couple centuries ago the same practitioner would see human and animal clientele. Rudolf Virchow, the father of modern pathology, believed that “between animal and human medicine there is no dividing line, nor should there be. The object is different but the experience obtained constitutes the basis of all medicine.” However, with the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of the late 1800s, veterinary colleges became more rural institutions while medical colleges flourished in urban centers. The fields drifted apart until they eventually lost touch, until recently.

With the notoriety of zoonosis, diseases that can be transferred from animal to human like West Nile and Avian Flu, medical fields are beginning to come together again for the betterment of animal and mankind. 

The authors of “Zoobiquity,” Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers, will be at Sunset Zoo in Manhattan at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 13, to speak about their work in exploring the intriguing links between human and animal health. They will also discuss the trend towards cooperation between the medical fields. Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers make their scientific subject easily accessible to the general public and ensure a trip to the veterinarian or zoo will never be quite the same again. 

Caitlin Cash is the co-chair of Sunset Zoo’s Docent Volunteer Group.

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