Animal Crackers Dec 6, 2013


Researchers in veterinary medicine and epidemiology have long demonstrated key connections between animals and humans in the areas of emerging infections. "Zoobiguity" looks at connections that are closer to home, including cardiology, gastroenterology, pediatrics, oncology and also psychiatry.

A man rushes his limp dog to the veterinarian. The doctor pronounces the dog dead. The agitated man demands a second opinion.

The vet goes into the back room and comes out with a cat. The cat sniffs the body and meows. The vet says, "I'm sorry, but the cat thinks that your dog is dead, too."
The man is still unwilling to accept that his dog is dead.
The vet brings in a black Labrador. The lab sniffs the body and barks. The vet says, "I'm sorry, but the lab thinks your dog is dead, too."
The man finally resigns to the diagnosis and asks how much he owes.
The vet answers, "$650."

"$650 to tell me my dog is dead?," exclaims the man.

"Well," the vet replies, "I would only have charged you $50 for my initial diagnosis. The additional $600 is for the 'cat scan' and 'lab tests.'"

My apologies for starting this column with such a lame joke; but the point is there is obviously a cross-over between human and animal medicine. Veterinarians do indeed employ CAT scans and lab tests in the diagnosis and treatment of animals and with good reason— both are significant and valid assessment tools. The methodologies from human medicine, from psychiatric intervention to organ transplantation, are available to veterinarians and are, indeed, employed with similar outcomes.

The American humorist Will Rogers made the early observation that, "The best doctor in the world is a veterinarian. He can't ask his patients what is the matter – he's got to just know." There is an obvious connection between the veterinarian who interacts with non-verbal patients and the developmental medicine clinician who also interacts with non-verbal patients. And while both sides of the clinical aisle "got to just know," the question of the day remains, "How do you just know?"

It seems there are pockets of clinicians who see the wisdom of exploring healthcare from both sides of the leash. A.A. Milne the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh remarked, "Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem." So what exactly can we learn about treating humans for diseases by listening to the animals?

Zoobiguity is a movement that "presents comparative medicine as a new translational science, bringing knowledge from veterinary and evolutionary medicine to the human bedside." Researchers in veterinary medicine and epidemiology have long demonstrated key connections between animals and humans in the areas of emerging infections; "zoobiguity" looks at connections that are closer to home, including cardiology, gastroenterology, pediatrics, oncology and also psychiatry. They are actively exploring how animal and human commonality can be used to diagnose, treat, and heal patients of all species.

The "zoobiguity" movement got its start when a UCLA cardiologist (Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz) was invited by the Los Angeles Zoo to consult on some of their most difficult cases. While she never collaborated with veterinarians, she quickly appreciated that she worked in a parallel world. She questioned why human physicians didn't interact more with their animal counterparts.

Some of the insights that may have significant contributions to the way your internist may view you during your next visit may be based on the fact that Golden Retrievers get breast cancer; so do jaguars, kangaroos and beluga whales. Siamese cats and Dobermans get OCD, many are on Prozac. Canaries, fish, and even Yorkie dogs faint when they're stressed out. Reindeer seek out narcotic escape in hallucinogenic mushrooms, and gorillas experience clinical depression and eating disorders. All point to a catalog of concerns that are presented to physicians on a daily basis in offices, clinics, hospitals and teaching rounds. About 60 percent of diseases found in humans also affect most animal species.

According to Dr. Richard Goldstein, chief medical officer at New York's Animal Medical Center, "Animals are models for human diseases and because their life spans are shorter, the progression of a disease is more obvious." He pointed out that because of obvious safety and ethical concerns, innovative treatments are tested on animals before such trials can be conducted on humans. A novel melanoma cancer vaccine developed for dogs at the Animal Medical Center led to ongoing human studies at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

Autism traits have been observed in mice and in a research paper published earlier this year in Ageing Research Reviews; researchers found that in 334 studies, 175 animal species showed evidence of senescence, or the process of growing old. While we do not actively treat mice with autism, we can certainly learn much from aging animals. One of the things we can learn from animals is how we should care for one another.
Watching elephants in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, one was observed to walk very slowly. Elephant expert Iain Douglas-Hamilton explained that the elephant, "BabyL", had been crippled for years, but the other members of the herd never left her behind. They would walk a while, and then stop to see where she was. The elephants had nothing to gain by helping her, as she could do little for them. The only conclusion was that their kindness and care was unconditional
If unconditional care is the single take home message derived from the new discipline of "zoobiguity," I would conclude that it is already a successful undertaking. Gandhi remarked that "the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Perhaps it's time to throw in the concept that it can also be judged by the way its humans are treated.

It becomes obvious that the time is long overdue to listen to the animals and to those who care for them.

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